Why Do We Vote? Questioning Political Ideology in Nigeria

In 2011, Muhammadu Buhari, who was the then-presidential candidate for the Congress for Progressive Change, won the votes in Kano by a landslide. Yet, Kano’s Gubernatorial election in that same year was declared for Kwankwaso of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). After Buhari joined the All Progressive Congress (APC), Kano voted for Buhari again in 2015 and 2019 at the Presidential elections. This non-partisan voting trend exhibited by the Kano electorate may be explained by the region’s history with the socialist movement led by Aminu Kano who promoted progressive taxes and initiated a class war by challenging the elite establishment.

Kano’s egalitarian ideology was popular with the impoverished masses and they rallied their unyielding support behind him. He united the talakawas—commoners who were made to pay exorbitant taxes and forced to provide free labour by farming land owned by the feudal class—to resist tyranny and fight to be regarded as humans with freedom and dignity. Many talakawas and migratory petty traders in Northern Nigeria supported Aminu Kano’s message. His struggle yielded many achievements: the talakawas were no longer forced to farm on feudal land without pay; taxes such as haraji (formal tax) and jangali (cattle tax) were abolished; the children of talakawas could acquire education to whatever level they desired; and political positions were opened to all. Thus, it is no surprise that Buhari’s social welfare-leaning policies resonate with the people of Kano.

During the 2019 campaigns, political candidates belonging to several parties participated in a multitude of televised debates and town hall meetings. Not once since the return to democratic rule in 1999 have presidential candidates been as accessible as they were during the last elections. Voters questioned candidates on their plans for Nigeria’s growth and it seemed as though we were finally ready for an election to be decided by ideological merit. Typical of elections in Nigeria, politicians made many outrageous promises to Nigerians. One of such pledges was African Action Congress’s Omoyele Sowore vowing to increase the minimum wage to N100,000 during the time when activists were fighting for an increase to N30,000. However, one thing was clear. The politicians stopped short of providing substantive details that can, at the very least, give insight into how they plan to design and implement their policies.

Every election cycle, Nigeria’s political parties recycle empty promises to fight corruption, reform the education sector, ensure security, provide infrastructural development, promote the rule of law, create jobs and achieve impactful economic growth—any idea that would help the party win. In mature democracies, party manifestos play a major role in politics and politicians traditionally present policies in line with their party ideologies. The 2016 presidential elections in the United States (US) was arguably one of the most contentious and divisive elections in the country’s modern history. Democrats and Republicans in the US are categorized based on their ideological leanings towards sensitive issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, immigration or the economy. Both frontrunners promised to improve the lives of Americans but the differences in ideology separated the candidates from each other in the eyes of the electorate.

However, in Nigeria, policy details often do not motivate the average voter. Kano state seems to be the exception. The states in southeast (except Anambra) and south-south have consistently voted for the PDP despite the lack of economic growth and development in the region. It is curious why voters in these states continue to vote PDP despite the inability of the PDP-led governments to take advantage of the economic potential posed by Aba in Abia state and oil and gas in the Niger Delta.

Politicians are notorious for making promises they cannot fulfil in order to gain votes. In 2015, with the recession and foreign exchange problems in Nigeria, Buhari promised an exchange rate of $1/N1. Clearly, this was unrealistic. When all else fails, politicians resort to ridiculous ploys to win votes. Days before the elections, Governor Aregbesola and Governors vying for re-elections paid salaries, pensions or gratuities which the State governments had owed civil servants for months; Governor Yari gave N1 million to clerics in his state to ‘preach in his favour’ a day to the election; and others distributed items such as kerosene, rice, notebooks, garri, and shoe-shining kits.


Identity politics are Nigeria’s form of populism. Only that instead of ideologies, politicians sell the candidate’s religion, ethnicity and ‘poverty’.

A significant proportion of Nigerians vote along religious and ethnic lines. One could argue that religious doctrines are ideological leanings but in Nigeria, political parties have tendency to amplify a candidate’s religion or ethnicity without informing voters how or why either of those factors are pertinent to policymaking or socioeconomic progress. These details are advertised not to convince voters to believe or support an ideology, but merely to promote identity politics.

As noted by Kimberlé Crenshaw in ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence Against Women of Color’, voting along ethnic, religious and economic status, brings voters together based on shared aspects of their identity. The build-up to the 2015 presidential elections featured a significant amount of religious rhetoric in campaigns, with Christian leaders urging congregants to vote for the Christian Goodluck Jonathan and Muslim clerics pushing for a Muslim Muhammadu Buhari. The largely Christian population in South-Eastern Nigeria unanimously voted against the APC and Buhari in 2015 on a claim that Buhari had a plan to Islamize Nigeria. Nigerians are also predisposed to voting for a ‘son of the soil’ when pitted against a candidate from another ethnic group.

One major determinant of the Nigerian voting behaviour is the candidate’s relatability and their perceived similarity to the average voter as Nigerians believe that those who are down to earth will empathize and represent their interests best. On the campaign trail, it is not strange to see politicians undertaking a number of menial tasks in a bid to portray themselves as relatable. Goodluck Jonathan famously spoke of growing up ‘shoeless’ to highlight the depth of his family’s material deprivation. Buhari—while receiving the pension allocated to former Heads of State—suggested that he needed a bank loan in order to purchase his party’s presidential nomination form. This speaks to a fear amongst politicians that appearing too elitist will result in losing the elections because people will view them as out of touch.

Nigeria’s status as the poverty capital of the world means that for many voters, financial incentives hold the biggest sway in their voting decision. Voters will gladly accept money, food, the promise of infrastructure or even jobs from politicians; a phenomenon popularly known as ‘Stomach Infrastructure’.


It is difficult to make a distinction between the different political parties in Nigeria. Neither the ruling party nor the opposition parties are rooted in any discernible political ideology. There are currently ninety-one political parties registered with the Independent National Electoral Commission and another one hundred and thirteen awaiting registration. A cursory look at the manifestos of these political parties will reveal less than coherent ideological leanings. It will, therefore, not be far-fetched to assume that the manifestos of many Nigerian political parties are merely written to comply with the constitutional requirement to have one.

The absence of ideological bearings has resulted in political fluidity. Switching political parties is not only simple but often needs no justification. On March 7, 2019, 48 hours before the Gubernatorial elections, Gbenga Daniel, a prominent member of the PDP, asked his supporters to vote for the APC candidate. This is nothing new in Nigeria. A few days after the Presidential elections, a number of PDP members defected to the APC. In fact, many Ministers in the APC-led Executive contested and won elections under the aegis of the PDP. Rotimi Amaechi, the current Minister for Transportation and Buhari’s Campaign Director, was the Governor of Rivers State under PDP; and Audu Ogbeh, the current Minister for Agriculture, was the PDP National Chairman.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, the activist, best summarized the Nigerian situation:

‘Nigeria’s political system is often an aggregation of interests. Most of them, short-term in horizon… and it continues to lend itself to brittle alliances that cannot withstand the pressures of political debate and the contestation of interests.’

With Buhari’s re-election in 2019 and APC’s continued stay in power, I will not be surprised if, before the next general elections, we see a lot of cross-carpeting within the legislature, defections and political alliances by politicians moving back to the APC to retain power.

In mature democracies, defections usually occur as a result of a change in the ideological principle of the party. Legislators in the UK resigned from the Labour and Conservative parties over their dissatisfaction with anti-Semitism and Brexit negotiations. A party’s ideology provides insight into their ideal route towards progress. For example, Capitalists believe that market forces should determine the distribution and allocation of resources, whereas socialists believe that the state should be the determinant. Thus, politics and political parties are organized around movements based on competing ideas.


The key role of political parties is to compete for votes. Traditionally, parties are made up of people who share a common idea of how the society should be organized. The political categorization of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ ideologies date from the summer of 1789 and they were originally coined with reference to the physical seating arrangements of politicians during the French Revolution when members of the French Estate General met to begin drafting a constitution. The delegates were divided over the issue of how much authority King Louis XVI should have, and as the debate raged, the anti-royalist revolutionaries seated themselves to the presiding officer’s left, while the more conservative, aristocratic supporters of the monarchy gathered to the right. These seating arrangements are still evident in the United States’ and United Kingdom’s legislative bodies.

Recently, the ‘Left’ has experienced some resurgence and notoriety thanks to the vocal Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an American politician, who describes herself as a democratic socialist; Jeremy Corbyn of the UK’s Labour Party; and America’s Bernie Sanders. The ‘Left’ in politics refers to that portion of the political spectrum associated with egalitarianism and state control of the major institutions of political and economic life. Thus, Left-wing politicians tend to be hostile to interests of the wealthy, which are upheld at the expense of the masses. They typically believe that there are unjustified inequalities in the society and the gap between the elite and proletariats need to be reduced or abolished with social welfare.

According to Barry Clark, a former Professor of Economics:

‘(Leftists) claim that human development flourishes when individuals engage in cooperative mutually respectful relations that can thrive only when excessive differences in status, power and wealth are eliminated’.


The ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ labels make little sense in a nascent democracy like Nigeria’s because parties rarely have explicit ideologies. That said, although political parties in Nigeria are one and the same, traditional western ideological frameworks can help us understand Nigerian politics when we analyse party manifestos and policies in an attempt to place the parties on the left-right political spectrum. The frontrunners of the 2019 Presidential elections were the opposition’s multibillionaire pro-business candidate and the incumbent, a self-proclaimed ‘saviour’ who promises to fight corruption.

Buhari’s excessively powerful central government and social intervention programs bear a resemblance to left-wing politics. It can be argued that the Buhari-led APC, which is affiliated with Socialist International (a worldwide association of political parties seeking to establish democratic socialism) is center-left of the political spectrum however, the Buhari-led administration has undertaken certain actions which are capitalist in nature and pro-business. For example, in 2019, Buhari assented to the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act which is intended to encourage competition in Nigeria. The APC manifesto says that it intends to institute a State anchored on social democracy where the welfare of citizens is paramount. Buhari developed social intervention programs such as TraderMoni, MarketMoni and PeopleMoni schemes, which Transparency International tagged a vote buying strategy; the N-Power scheme, a work-for-cash program which addresses unemployment by deploying thousands of unemployed graduates to fill public service inadequacies in education, health and civic education; and the Home Grown School Feeding Program, which currently feeds nine million poor children at school in order to increase enrolment.

While the rhetoric of Buhari’s administration is supposedly pro-business, his policies and the actions of his administration have been inimical to business interests. True, his administration signed many executive orders to improve the ease of doing business but his government is more disposed to interventionism. The snail-paced response to the foreign exchange crisis during the height of the economic recession led to the closure of many businesses and the devaluation of the Naira. A situation, many argue could have been prevented if the Buhari administration was not so strongly opposed to opening currency markets. Similarly, while several roadshows have been organized to attract Foreign Direct Investment, the administration’s heavy-handed tactics such as hefty fines slapped on companies like MTN sent shockwaves through the investor community.

Buhari supporters have defended the shutdown of businesses and the mass exodus of Nigerians to foreign countries on the grounds that the said closures and exodus are as a result of the fight against corruption. Meanwhile, Buhari, his family and ‘cabals’ allegedly live the same lavish lifestyle he criticizes. As David Hundeyin notes:

‘They have achieved great political success by weaponizing the economic envy of a large, impoverished population, publicly glorifying poverty as a virtue while collecting the world’s most generous compensation packages for political office and living expensive and lavish lifestyles.’

The centre-right PDP, on the other hand, favours free-market policies, supports economic liberalism and limited government regulation or intervention. In 2003, President Obasanjo and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala embarked on an economic reform to develop conservative fiscal policies, and deregulate, privatize and liberate the telecommunications, power and banking sectors. In a decidedly right-wing move, the PDP took a very definite stand in 2007 against same-sex relations, the National Assembly passed and the presidency assented to a bill criminalizing same-sex marriage by making it punishable with 14 years’ imprisonment. However, the PDP also adopted certain left-wing policies such as Obasanjo’s National Health Insurance Scheme, which seeks to ensure access to basic healthcare.

Atiku Abubakar’s one hundred and eighty-six-page manifesto titled ‘Let’s Get Nigeria Working Again’, is pro-business and capitalist in nature with the key points of his proposal being provision of a competitive and open economic system. This policy document from the PDP candidate does not contain any social welfare policies. When tasked with his seeming unconcern for the less privileged, he insisted that commercial agriculture and access to credit (especially for women) are more effective ways of addressing poverty.


In a very left-wing move, Buhari portrays Atiku’s wealth as a moral failure for it exists amidst the poverty levels in Nigeria. During his re-election campaign, Buhari implored Nigerians to learn to accept poverty as the price for ‘fighting corruption’. The president made no attempt to promise economic growth. Instead, his administration elevated poverty as a virtue. Rather than addressing underlying policy issues affecting the economy, Buhari admonished Nigerians ‘to live within their means’ while stigmatizing economic wealth as the proceeds of corruption. Even though the message to ‘live within your means’ may be sound personal advice, as a public policy statement—particularly for a country slowly recovering from the debilitating effects of recession and, currently, the poverty capital of the world—the message elicited stunned reactions from many voters.

In a manner reminiscent of Squealer’s media machinations in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, any criticism of Buhari and his administration is shouted down by his supporters and very effective media handlers, or threatened with imprisonment. In 2015, APC sponsored a social media bill to prescribe a jail term for any person who uses social media to make ‘an abusive statement’ against Buhari or any government official. Fortunately, pressure from civil society killed the bill. In 2018, the National Broadcasting Commission sent out a statement to media houses prohibiting political commentaries criticizing the government with a threat to shut down any station that persists. The government has been accused of being keener on blackmailing and threatening those critical of the government than investigating and prosecuting corrupt public officials across board. Nigerians were shocked when, rather than speak up against the alleged corruption by Governor Ganduje, Buhari invited him on the campaign trail. Yet, Jafar Jafar, the journalist who uncovered the Governor’s unlawful enrichment was arrested and prosecuted. Indeed, it has been a running joke that to escape investigation or prosecution, all one has to do is join the ruling party.

Left-wing politicians promote egalitarianism. So, when Buhari proclaimed that he ‘belongs to everyone and to nobody’ in his inaugural speech, Nigerians were elated. However, in a walk back on that promise, Buhari has been criticized for completely abandoning the constitutional provision to ensure ‘Federal Character’ in all political appointments and actions. Buhari has been accused of surrounding himself with friends and family members whom he claimed to ‘trust’ appointing only a limited number of persons from the South-East and South-South, and widening the sense of disunity, distrust and feeling of inequality in Nigeria. Nigerians were also shocked when Buhari was questioned on the Niger Delta amnesty and inclusive development at an address at the United States Institute of Peace in July 2015 and he answered: ‘I hope you have a copy of the election results. The constituents, for example, who gave me 97% cannot in all honesty be treated on some issues with constituencies that gave me 5%’. Certainly, that stance is not in line with the principles of egalitarianism.

The left, particularly the Democrats in the United States and Labour in the United Kingdom, generally opposes a wide gap between the rich and the poor. Consequently, they promote and support measures such as progressive income tax such as tax breaks and subsidies for those in the lower income bracket and a wealth tax and increased VAT to fund government expenditure. Jane Jenson, in ‘Center-Left Parties and New Social Risks. Facing up to New Policy Challenges’, noted that the Labour Party in the United Kingdom instituted various tax credits and benefits targeted at low-income workers and some intended to help families with children. For example, the Child Benefit and Child Tax benefit available to adults caring for children. Conversely, under the Buhari-led government, inequality is on the increase and the government embarked on a tax collection effort via its Voluntary Amnesty and Income Distribution Scheme while granting additional tax breaks to influential businesses in Nigeria through its pioneer status program and similar tax measures.

With Nigeria currently experiencing a heatwave blamed on climate change, the Nigerian government and indeed no political party has made climate change a policy issue or a point-of-action. Though the manifesto of the APC says that the party is centre-left, the Buhari-led administration has not addressed certain issues such as provision of universally accessible public services such as care for the elderly, child-care, education, healthcare, workers’ compensation, child labour and social security measures which are important to the dominant centre-left parties in the United States and United Kingdom.


Is Buhari a democratic socialist? Is the APC a social democratic party? Is the PDP a conservative party? These questions are difficult to answer. Buhari has some ‘socialist’ ideas that party members struggle to weave a coherent narrative around, but one thing is clear: our politicians do not seem to have any idea what sort of society they are trying to build.

It is difficult to discern where Nigerian politics stands in relation to traditional western ideological frameworks. Perhaps a better approach would be for Nigeria and indeed Africa to develop an ideological framework based on issues important to voters and peculiar to our experiences, history and economies. The issues could range from systems of governance such as democracy or autocracy, to social issues such as ethnicity and religion. Political parties in Nigeria will need to outgrow competition on the basis of cults of personality and identity politics with elections reduced to mere marketing gimmicks and adversarial politics, and instead begin to promote issue-oriented campaigns during which they communicate the vision they prescribe for Nigeria and Africa