Nigeria’s Kingmakers Are Still in Control
Divisive politics and historical power structures helped Bola Tinubu win.
Nigeria’s 1966 coup d'état ushered a group of young military men into power, where they remain today as kingmakers, wielding immense political influence.
Nigeria’s 1966 coup d’état ushered a group of young military men into power, where they remain today as kingmakers, wielding immense political influence.
In this circle of elites known as the Class of ‘66 is Nigeria’s outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari and the former military leader and later civilian president, Olusegun Obasanjo. The late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who was handpicked as Obasanjo’s successor, was the younger brother of an army officer turned vice president during the junta’s rule in the 1970s. Even Nigeria’s former civilian president, Goodluck Jonathan (the only president to have lasted just one term), was previously vice president to Yar’Adua.
Unprecedented young voter participation in this year’s presidential election aimed to break the two main parties’ 24-year monopoly (unbroken since democracy returned in 1999). Not only was a member of the Class of ‘66 not on the ballot, but neither was an incumbent, because Buhari has served his two-term limit. Around 40 percent of Nigerian voters are under the age of 35, and the vast majority of those voters cast their ballots for the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, who at 61 was the youngest of the top three contenders.
But in an election dogged by abysmal planning and fraud allegations, political “kingmaker” and ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who turns 71 later this month, emerged as the leader of a country with a median age of 18.
Tinubu’s exact age is contested; his critics suspect he is older. Few Nigerians wanted another leader in frail health (Tinubu once posted a video of himself riding an exercise bike as proof to Nigerians that he wasn’t dead) let alone a continuation of an APC leadership characterized by impunity for the massacre of children in its war with Boko Haram and of young people during protests against police abuse. His party’s terrible policy choices include blocking dollar access for food imports and a botched currency swap inflicting economic pain on households.
Tinubu may have won the top job on his first attempt, but his 37 percent share of votes is the lowest mandate of any democratically elected Nigerian president. Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) got 29 percent while Obi took 25 percent.
The perception among some analysts is that voter suppression prevented a run-off.
At 29 percent, this was Nigeria’s lowest voter turnout in decades. Of the 93.4 million registered voters only 24.9 million voted, with incidents of thuggery and biometric machine failures preventing many Nigerians who had queued for hours from voting at all. “The bottlenecks around the elections enabled the emergence of a Tinubu win,” said Leena Koni Hoffmann-Atar, associate fellow of the Africa program at Chatham House think tank in London.
The hotly disputed 2007 election that brought Yar’Adua into power ignited calls for reform and ushered in the 2022 electoral act and use of new technology. In that election, Yar’Adua won more votes in key areas than there were voters. “It is very ironic that the first election after the passage of the act from this long period of election reform is one that has caused such injury to the public trust,” Hoffmann-Atar said.
In some states such as Lagos where Tinubu lost by a small margin, there are reports that vote tallies transmitted electronically at some polling stations were actually erroneously uploaded totals from northern states—suggesting, for example, that Obi had a larger than officially recorded win in Lagos.
International observers slammed election day’s chaotic exercise. A 40-person delegation led by Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi, concluded that the secrecy around some ballot counts “created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process”; the EU criticized logistical failures that “challenged the right to vote.”
Tinubu is a divisive figure who has been labelled “corruption personified” by one Nigerian politician. Money laundering allegations trail him. (Despite denying tax fraud allegations, he settled a $41.8 million lawsuit out of court in August 2022.) But his supporters credit his term as governor with having greatly increased Lagos’s revenue generation through foreign investment and taxation; and point to his pro-democracy activism, which led to his exile under dictator Sani Abacha. Nigerian newspaper This Day editor Shaka Momodu cuttingly wrote that Tinubu’s “desire to be seen and called a democrat is only matched by the reality of his undemocratic tendencies.”
There are plenty of historical power structures and a divisive playbook underpinning Tinubu’s win. As a grandmaster of Nigerian political maneuvering and after decades behind the scenes financing or sabotaging political careers, Tinubu built himself powerful bases (alongside the erosion of the main opposition party’s strongholds) to win the vote.
He utilized regional and religious alliances like many Nigerian politicians before him. Outside of Lagos, in key southwestern cities such as Abeokuta and Ibadan, his campaign posters adopted a distinct phrase, “Awa Lokan,” meaning “It’s our turn”—merging his win with that of the Yoruba nation. In these cities, Foreign Policy witnessed his supporters calling out “Asiwaju”—his Yoruba title, meaning leader.
Tinubu also spent much of his time networking northern governors on a controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket alongside Kashim Shettima, a former governor of northeastern Borno State. He also claimed responsibility for Buhari’s presidency. “I am a talent hunter,” he once boasted. “I put talents in office.”
Opposition parties have ongoing litigation against Tinubu’s victory. PDP’s Abubakar—another political godfather—called it “a rape of democracy.”
The opposition parties are also blaming each other. Obi claims he won the election and will prove it. Abubakar, his former running mate turned rival, suggests Obi simply split PDP votes. Obi ditched the PDP last year when it became clear he wouldn’t be its presidential candidate, having been Abubakar’s running mate in 2019.
“There is a fact that he took our votes from the southeast and south-south and that of course would not make him a president,” Abubakar said. “You all know that to be a president of this country you need votes from everywhere.” Here he referred to Obi’s poor results in the north, outside of Christian areas, where he polled between zero and 10 percent. To win outright, a candidate needs the most votes and a geographical spread of 25 percent of votes cast in two thirds of all states and the capital territory. Northern Nigeria, which has 19 of Nigeria’s 36 states, thus determines elections.
Obi was dismissed as a “social media president“ but managed to outpoll the ruling APC in Nigeria’s federal capital Abuja and commercial powerhouse Lagos. The success was aided by young, digitally savvy Nigerians frustrated that the two main parties’ grip on power has failed to make their lives better or lift out of poverty the multidimensionally poor, which constitute over 60 percent of the population.
They wanted a president with a cleaner record, even if Obi is not entirely unblemished. (He was named in the Pandora Papers, a dossier of global leaders hiding offshore wealth.) “In Peter Obi, there was hope that Nigeria could change,” Edna Ugochinyere, a 24-year-old student in Lagos, told Foreign Policy.
Obi’s popularity is historic. Nigeria has never had an Igbo candidate come so close to the presidential seat since the civil war, when Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, seized power in January 1966 and lasted just six months in office before being overthrown by Hausa army officers in an event that culminated in the bloody Biafran War.
Until today, the inner circle of the Class of ‘66, from Gen. Yakubu Gowon to Abacha, have controlled Nigeria. Their terms in office have been characterized by unaccountability and entrenched corruption that have proved difficult to shake. As Michael Ogbeidi, a professor of history and strategic studies at the University of Lagos, noted, “The sixteen unbroken years of the military era from the fall of the Second Republic in 1983 and the restoration of democracy in 1999 represents an era in the history of the country when corruption was practically institutionalized as the foundation and essence of governance.”
When Buhari first seized power in 1983, his short-lived regime was notorious for having jailed some 500 corrupt politicians and businessmen. But under his current eight-year civilian tenure, Nigerians have become less safe and income per capita has fallen.
Tinubu inherits his party’s legacy. Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate is 42.5 percent, impacting 21.72 million people, which is more than the entire population of Senegal and about 70 percent of Ghana’s population. Islamist insurgencies have spread beyond the northeast. Nigerians are under threat from kidnappers, communal clashes, and various secessionists.
Almost half of Nigerians lack electricity. Total debt stock has increased six-fold to around 77 trillion naira ($167 billion), or 40 percent of GDP. Buhari controversially added an extra $50 billion in government overdrafts to state debt.
Unsurprisingly, between 50 percent and 70 percent of Nigerians want to leave the country. One Afrobarometer survey suggests 89 percent of Nigerians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Many worry a disputed election in Nigeria could be consequential for other elections across the continent. Social media misinformation is circulating now, including that U.S. president Joe Biden has called for results to be cancelled.
Prior to the election, analysts had warned of disputes if the process was not seen as transparent. “In a very divisive election cycle like this—one of the ways to manage division is to ensure that every policy is seen to be fair and believed to be fair, that there is uniformity of process and national compliance to the legal framework on election,” said Cynthia Mbamalu, director of programs at Abuja-based Yiaga Africa, a non-partisan group promoting fair elections in Nigeria. “With the economic hardship we have a lot of people that are angry. There are a lot of angry Nigerians.”
The nation’s political landscape is perhaps irreversibly fragmenting as young voters grasp the immense staying power of so-called kingmakers—elite politicians born decades before them.
The flip side is data collated by citizens and at polls will be scrutinized over many months. “An election that was not as transparent as people were expecting it to be will maybe even become one of the most transparent elections, ironically, Nigeria has ever had,” Hoffmann-Atar said. “Young people are going to learn how to engage with politics outside of election day and how that is very crucial to winning on the day …. They are going to learn how Nigeria’s politics disenfranchises them.”
Ultimately, the fact that a third party even managed to challenge Nigeria’s two-party system is a significant albeit small democratic success.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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