The Bellwether State What Ekiti State Can Tell Us About the 2023 Election

The manner in which Ekiti’s June 2022 governorship election unfolded could foreshadow Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election.

Following a protracted legal battle that lasted 41 months, on October 15, 2010, an appeal court panel led by Justice Ayo Salami unanimously declared Dr. Kayode Fayemi as the governor of Ekiti State. Fayemi immediately replaced Segun Oni, who had been in office since May 29, 2007. An earlier decision of the Supreme Court in June 2007, which reinstated Peter Obi as governor of Anambra state, established that a governor’s four-year term begins the day he takes the oath of office. A combination of these two rulings, meant that Ekiti should not have held a governorship election during the 2011 general election cycle. It also meant that Ekiti had unknowingly joined a list of states where governors, having secured their mandate through the court process, were now to conduct off-cycle elections.

Inadvertently, this change in Ekiti’s election schedule has led to Ekiti’s being one of two governorship elections (the second being Osun State’s) held immediately before the general elections. Most recently, the Ekiti governorship election held last month reignited rivalries between familiar political adversaries—and, incidentally, former governors. While this was the first election in 20 years that neither Fayemi nor Ayodele Fayose were on the ballot, they were well-represented by the candidates they backed. On one hand, Governor-elect Biodun Oyebanji of the All Progressives Congress (APC) was Governor Fayemi’s immediate past secretary to the state government. On the other hand, former state People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chairman, Bisi Kolawole, contested for PDP.

In both 2015 and 2019, the timing of Ekiti’s governorship elections had unintended consequences during the general elections. As the first election on the long road to the 2023 election, and following APC’s victory, can one of Nigeria’s smallest states tell us anything about what to expect in 2023?

EKITI’S TURBULENT POLITICAL HISTORY

Despite Ekiti’s small and culturally homogeneous population, Ekiti’s political space reflects the obstinacy for which Ekiti people are known for. Alliance for Democracy (AD)’s Otunba Niyi Adebayo, was Ekiti’s first governor in the Fourth Republic (1999-present), and his relatively quiet administration failed to withstand PDP’s South West onslaught during the 2003 elections which resulted in the victory of its candidate, Fayose. Sadly, Fayose’s term as governor was marred by accusations of political violence, thuggery, and murder.

Disagreements with key stakeholders within the PDP, and opposition coming from external groups, resulted in efforts to remove Fayose from office on corruption charges in 2006. The plan to impeach Fayose and his deputy, Abiodun Olujimi, began in September 2006, when 24 of the state’s 26 legislators issued an impeachment notice. The impeachment process, however, ran into difficulties when the state chief judge, Kayode Bamisile, set up an impeachment panel that exonerated Fayose and his deputy. To achieve their goal, the state lawmakers suspended the chief judge, dismissed the panel he set up to investigate allegations of misconduct against the governor and his deputy, and appointed an acting chief judge, Jide Aladejana, to form a new committee to investigate the allegations against the governor.

On October 15, 2006, the State House of Assembly impeached Fayose and Olujimi and immediately appointed its speaker, Friday Aderemi, as acting governor. The situation worsened when the then-attorney general of Nigeria, Bayo Ojo, declared the impeachment process unconstitutional. Questions about the legality of the impeachment process, particularly the unconstitutional suspension of the chief judge, resulted in a situation where the governor, his deputy and the ‘acting’ governor all claimed gubernatorial powers. To resolve the crisis, President Obasanjo declared a state of emergency in Ekiti on October 19, 2006, appointing Brigadier-General Tunji Olurin as ‘sole administrator’. Olurin eventually served out the remainder of Fayose’s term. While Fayose and his deputy did not challenge the legality of their impeachment at the time, a Supreme Court decision in 2015 confirmed its illegality and, in 2017, Fayose toyed with the idea of seeking to complete his unexpired term, but never did.

The 2007 governorship election offered the prospect of a new political beginning for Ekiti. However, this marked the beginning of Action Congress (AC) candidate Fayemi’s 41-month legal journey, as the election result that ushered in PDP’s Segun Oni, was challenged on grounds of electoral malpractice and non-compliance with the 2006 Electoral Act. In February 2009, the Federal Appeal Court nullified Oni’s election and ordered a rerun in 10 of Ekiti’s 16 local government areas (LGAs). Although INEC declared that Oni had won the re-run elections, a return to the election tribunal and, later, the appeal court resulted in the cancellation of the election results in the disputed LGAs, leaving Fayemi with the most votes and his declaration as the rightful winner.

Fayemi’s first term in office was largely devoid of the controversy that defined previous administrations and public perception of his administration was positive. This is why Fayemi’s loss, the first test for the newly formed APC, was a surprise even though his opponent was a former governor who had the backing of the PDP-led Jonathan federal government. Four years later, Fayemi’s party was in control at the federal level. Backed by President Buhari who had appointed him as a minister for three years, the party easily defeated the sitting deputy governor, Kolapo Olusola. The returnee governor has since used this second term to solidify his political structure in the state and he has made history by becoming the first governor in Ekiti to ensure his preferred successor’s electoral victory.

AS EKITI GOES, SO GOES THE NATION?

Political analysts in the United States have regarded certain counties, such as Valencia County in New Mexico, as political barometers due to its track record of selecting winning presidential candidates from 1952 to 2016—giving rise to the phrase, ‘As Valencia County goes, so goes the nation’. Changes in Ekiti’s election cycle since 2014 mean that the governorship election now takes place a few months before the presidential election and should ideally serve as a foreshadowing of what is to come.

Like mid-term elections in the US, pundits see the Ekiti election as a litmus test for citizens’ reactions to federal policies on a sub-national level and a referendum on the president’s or incumbent party’s performance. However, Ekiti’s voting patterns in the 2014 and 2018 elections yielded mixed results. PDP, which was in power at the time at the federal level, lost the presidential election in 2015 despite winning the state in 2014. In 2019, the incumbent APC won the presidential election after Fayemi was elected governor on the platform of the party in 2018. These two elections do not provide clear indicators of who will win a presidential election, but it does provide important indicators of how the election cycle will unfold.

Ekiti’s political landscape provides fertile ground for political parties to test political strategies that could be scaled nationally ahead of the general election. Fayose’s 2014 governorship campaign introduced and established new phrases in Nigeria’s political lexicon and his unconventional campaign strategy, which he termed ‘stomach infrastructure’, was based on the assumption that voters in relatively poor states like Ekiti are more concerned with daily sustenance than physical infrastructure. Allegations of illegal withdrawals by then National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, to fund this election, as well as the overwhelming militarization of the state pre-election and on election day, which has now been dubbed ‘federal might’, provided favourable advantages that ensured the PDP candidate’s victory. Fayose became the poster boy for Jonathan’s campaign in the South West region, although his abrasive campaign tactics might have contributed to Jonathan’s defeat in 2015.

Despite its relative failure for PDP in the 2015 general election cycle, elements of Fayose’s ‘philosophy’ have continued to emerge in elections held at various levels since then. In 2018, Fayemi, relying on his party’s power, adopted Fayose’s model of leveraging on federal influence, and his election was widely criticized for widespread voter inducement at the polls, which was eventually dubbed ‘see and buy’. Unlike previous elections, voter inducement took place at polling units in the 2018 Ekiti election, with tacit support from security agents and polling agents who ensured that voters were only paid after it was verified that they had voted for the party. The see-and-buy model, which represents an evolution of vote buying that became popular after 2014, has served as a forerunner for issues of inducement politics and other strategies that have appeared in subsequent elections.

 WHAT CAN EKITI TELL US ABOUT 2023?

APC may have won the June 2022 Ekiti governorship election convincingly. However, Ekiti’s election offers much more than just results—it offers early pointers at themes that will define the 2023 polls.

Firstly, the governorship election in Ekiti serves as a preview of political strategies and voting patterns we can expect in 2023. The introduction of a new electoral act earlier this year brought high expectations that negative political strategies could be mitigated. However, incidents of voter buying, voter intimidation and violence in the run-up to elections and at polling units persist across Nigeria and showed up in Ekiti. Voters might have been isolated in Ekiti, but in a more unstable political environment, we could easily see more volatile outcomes across states in 2023. One likelihood is that the 2023 elections may be heavily monetized as parties seek to create difficulties for opposition candidates who may not have the financial capacity or intention to compete in the same manner.

Regarding voting patterns, there has been a significant push to increase voter registration, raising hopes that this election cycle will see an improvement in election turnouts. Despite an increase in the number of registered voters, voter turnout in the 2022 Ekiti governorship election stood at 36.5 per cent, which represented a 17.8 per cent decrease from the 2018 election and the lowest turnout on record. History suggests that despite improvements to INEC’s voter validation process which have seen a rise in voter registrations, the low voter turnout that largely characterized the 2019 presidential election may be replicated in 2023.

Secondly, Ekiti’s election provided a small-scale assessment of APC’s performance and the electorate’s reaction to APC’s policies both at the state and federal level. The ruling party’s victory in Ekiti suggests that potential voter dissatisfaction with APC’s handling of the economy, insecurity, and other issues may not necessarily resonate with local-level voters who consider other factors when selecting a candidate. Victory for the ruling party has also provided APC additional momentum heading into the general election cycle, as well as a positive start for its presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who is from the South West and will be expecting to secure a significant portion of his votes there. For PDP, its dismal performance in the election, in which its candidate finished third, has done little to change public perception of the party’s readiness for the presidential election and failed to generate the much-needed boost that its supporters required.

Thirdly, Oni’s performance in the 2022 Ekiti Election with the Social Democratic Party hints at the decisive role ‘third force’ candidates can play in the presidential election. A general dissatisfaction with the performance of the two major political parties has led to repeated calls for Nigerians to vote for alternative platforms. Oni ran on the platform of a lesser-known party in Ekiti, and by leveraging his political clout, he was able to finish second, performing better than the PDP candidate. Oni’s election performance can be viewed from two perspectives. On one hand, it validates supporters of third-party presidential candidates like Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso and Peter Obi who have argued that the political structures of the two leading parties are overrated and provides momentum for their movement. On the other hand, the APC may have benefited from the division that arose as a result of Oni’s departure from the PDP, resulting in a situation where split votes were key in ensuring the incumbent party’s victory—noticeably both Kwankwaso and Obi were PDP members before leaving to actualize their presidential ambitions. While victory for candidates from third-force parties in the presidential election may be a long shot, such parties will undoubtedly play an important role in determining the election outcome.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this election has allowed INEC and the electorate, to assess the electoral body’s readiness for the general election. As this was the first election under the new electoral act, its significance is obvious. Ekiti’s relatively small size, provided the ideal setting for the electoral body to test its readiness and reports from independent observers indicate that the state earned a passing grade for this election. Significant assessment criteria that received high marks were: first, how Ekiti implemented the electoral act’s requirement that INEC maintain a national electronic register of election results; and second, how Ekiti provided a portal for real-time transmission of voting results, which provided a level of transparency previously unheard of in the Nigerian political system. Another area was the successful replacement of card readers with the Bimodal Voters Authentication System, which had a 92 per cent success rate. An increase in confidence in INEC’s capacity to hold successful elections in 2023 may result from continued performance along this trajectory. However, this confidence could be undermined if INEC is unable to successfully implement measures to prevent vote buying at polling units. INEC must be able to maintain its gains and address identified problems before the Osun gubernatorial election happens later this month, in order to increase both INEC’s and the electorate’s confidence before the 2023 election.

With Fayose and Fayemi, two prominent political figures in Ekiti, mostly preoccupied with securing the presidential ticket of their respective parties, political activity at the federal level largely overshadowed the 2022 Ekiti election. As the dust from the election settles, parties will assess their performance and determine what the election results portend for the future. It is too early to say whether Ekiti will be a predictor of how Nigeria will vote in this presidential election, a better proxy may be the governorship election in Osun, which will be the last election before the 2023 polls. However, the four points outlined above offer useful indicators for the 2023 election and, in such a consequential election cycle as this, Ekiti provides both hope and cause for concern regarding the effective administration of the next general election

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