What We Think about when We Think about Elections Revisiting Political Ideology in Nigeria

Every four years, Nigerian voters go to the polls and vote for the candidates they believe will represent them best in government. In the months before elections, the country is covered in the many colours of its political parties, each employing various strategies to sell their candidates to the voters. In more advanced democracies, political parties are driven by ideology. Members of these parties are bound not by tribe or religion but by unison of perspective on social, economic and political matters. These perspectives shape policy propositions and form the foundations on which manifestos are built. In such countries, citizens are able to make choices that reflect their personal leanings on issues like healthcare, education, foreign policy and security interventions. Since Nigeria’s independence, a significantly different range of considerations have framed voters’ choices. Many have argued that Nigerian political parties do not have ideologies; and that even before independence, ethnic and money politics relegated issue-based politics to the background. This is true for many reasons.


By 1959, Nigeria’s government was a coalition of two conservative parties: the Northern People Congress (NPC) and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons—later known as the National Convention of the Nigerian Citizens (NCNC). The NPC was dominated by Northerners and Muslims. Its leader, Ahmadu Bello, was premier of the Northern Region, and his deputy, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, became Nigeria’s first prime minister. The NCNC was largely Igbo and Christian. Its leader, Nnamdi Azikiwe, replaced the colonial governor-general in November 1960 and became the country’s first president in 1963. The comparatively liberal AG, led by Obafemi Awolowo, was dominant in Yorubaland and made up the bulk of the opposition. Other political parties included Northern Element Progressive Union (NEPU), United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC), Borno Youth Movement (BYM) and United National Independence Party (UNIP). The Second Republic (1979-1983) saw the formation of more political parties, although in practical terms, most of the new parties were formed out of parties of the First Republic (1960-1979). The parties included the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) replacing the NPC, AG and NCNC respectively. Others were the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) and Great Nigerian Peoples Party (GNPP), and later Nigerian Advance Party (NAP), which was registered in 1982.

During the first and second republics, most of the key political systems were formed based on two ideological trends that were the core beliefs of the nationalist leaders. Such leaders included: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Tafawa-Balewa, Ahmadu Bello and Ernest Okoli. In his essay, ‘Political Ideology and Party Politics: The Case of the People’s Democratic Party,’ Godson Azu writes on the ideological landscape of the country at this time. According to Azu, ideologies appeared to fall between the ‘Far-right’ conservatives of the NPC; the ‘Far-left’ socialist of the AG and the Centre-right Neo-Conservatives’ of the NCNC. Ideologically, the NPC was conservative and elitist, while the AG and NCNC appeared to be progressive and welfarist, predicated upon socialist ideology. One thing was clear, however, about these parties: they all shared a common feature of ethno-regional ideology, seeking to capture and consolidate power in their respective spheres of influence. Defining the ideological orientation of these parties was difficult as the parties themselves did not follow clear-cut thinking lines. Many developments emphasized this ambiguity. For example, the decision of the NCNC and the NPC to form the government of the First Republic was fraught with flaws from the onset. Both parties were ideological polar opposites and that alliance crumbled shortly after.

In his book, Just before Dawn, Kole Omotosho writes on the ethnic makeup of the parties that fielded candidates in the December 1959 elections. Omotosho reflects on how Nigeria’s ethno-tribal constitution fed feelings of animosity, divided the country across ethnic and religious lines and inspired abusive, hate speech and violence. According to him, a tri-regional party system emerged, reflecting the dominant ethnic group in each region. Just over seven million Nigerians voted across the country along ethno-religious lines for the party from the region. This is significant because just before the elections, a seat in the House of Representatives was allocated for every 100,000 Nigerians. This meant the more populous Northern region was allocated 174 seats while the West and Eastern regions got 62 and 73 seats respectively with Lagos getting the remaining three seats. Voting across ethnic lines would prove critical in the parliamentary system of the time with the North, represented by the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) having the most constituencies, producing the winning party. Elections decided by party philosophy died almost as soon as the first republic started to take shape. By the next elections, the regions aligned and put the final nail on the coffin of party ideology and from then on, ethnic identity continued to be the dominant form of appeal for political parties.

The first fundamental change in the mode of party formation happened in the Third Republic (1993–1999). The Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC) were formed by the state after the dissolution of thirteen associations that applied for registration. After dissolving thirteen associations that applied for registration, the state formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). Although, from appearances, the parties were formed with the former having liberal tendencies and the latter a little to the right, it has since become known that this development was part of the grand design to perpetuate the military regime in power. The eventual annulment of the 12 June 1993 presidential election by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida lends credence to this claim.

Multi-party democracy did not return to Nigeria until 1999, following the transition General Abdulsalam Abubakar inaugurated and successfully completed. The Abubakar administration announced that it would not stay in office one day more than was necessary. His administration allowed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to grant provisional registration to nine political parties, with the conditions that after the local government elections of that year, those that had 10 per cent votes and above in at least 24 states of the federation would qualify to contest subsequent states and federal elections. Initially, three political parties—People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the All People’s Party (APP)—later All Nigerian People Party (ANPP)—and the Alliance for Democracy (AD) were registered by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). By December 2002, the number of registered parties rose to 30, while three more political parties were registered by February 2006.

The foundations of the parties of the Fourth Republic (1999–present) are perhaps the biggest factor behind the ideological barrenness that characterised the democratic atmosphere up until the last elections. A former speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Umar Na’Abba, once stated that the PDP drew its founders from ‘all and sundry political persuasions: conservatives, radicals and progressives’. Indeed, most of these founders were men and women who supported the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and cavorted with the military during the annulment and the post-annulment period. With these roots, the parties of the Fourth Republic were ill-equipped to develop ideologies that defined them outside money and ethnic politics.

Following President Olusegun Obasanjo’s victory at the 1999 polls, the People’s Democratic Party produced Nigeria’s presidents until 2015. In 2015, the candidate of the newly formed All Progressives Congress, former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari defeated the incumbent President, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, in the elections of 28 and 29 March.

PDPs loss of the 2015 elections was more closely linked to the internal strife that overwhelmed the party than anything else. Many of its leaders and other aggrieved party delegates ‘decamped’ and by February 2013, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which was formed as a result of an alliance by Nigeria’s four biggest opposition parties—the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the All Nigeria

Peoples Party (ANPP), and a faction of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA)—welcomed them all with open arms. This coincided with a spate of substantial allegations of financial improprieties hovering over key government officials in the PDP-led administration. As the economy slowed to a halt, following a dent in global crude prices and insecurity spiralled in North East Nigeria where an extremist group, Boko Haram, brazenly battled the Nigerian army for territory. The middle class saw the emerging APC as an alternative to the PDP, who they considered both responsible for the state of the Nation and unable to offer real solutions to the problems they faced. On May 29 2015, General Muhammadu Buhari was sworn in as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, making history as the first opposition candidate to have defeated an incumbent since the dawn of the Fourth Republic.


In the four years of his administration, the APC candidate and incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, had grown increasingly unpopular among the same middle class that clamoured for him in 2015. By 2019, the goodwill on which he rode into power in 2015 appeared to have whittled down, especially in the South, East and Western parts of the country—although he remains quite popular in the North. The decline in Buhari’s goodwill can be attributed to a number of reasons. Firstly, under Buhari, Nigeria overtook India and became the poverty capital of the world. With almost 90 million people living on less than a dollar a day, and six Nigerians slipping into extreme poverty every minute, Nigeria now has more people living in extreme poverty than China and India combined. Buhari’s administration failed to provide clear-cut economic policy direction, allowing the already volatile economy slump even further. The Naira fell from N165/1USD in 2015 to N360/1USD in 2018, causing the import-dependent economy to suffer even greater losses. Local and foreign direct investments shrank resulting in more than 7.9 million job losses in three years. It was on this note that Nigeria entered the 2019 election cycle.

Arguably, the 2019 presidential elections were the first time Nigeria had the major frontrunners campaign on distinguishable left- and right-wing political ideologies. From better border security to increased capitalism, voters saw for the first time a proper battle of ideologies, by Nigerian standards. President Muhammadu Buhari ran on a big government, socialist ticket while the People’s Democratic Party’s candidate and former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, pushed capitalist reform, with emphasis on a private sector-led economy and smaller government. Although ethnic politics still played a role, for the first time in this or any Nigerian ‘republic’, clear policy dichotomies emerged between the major contenders. From the party manifestos, speeches and interviews, the ruling APC consistently held left-leaning, socialist positions while the PDP rivalled with more capitalist policy positions.

In a presidential townhall co-production between Daria Media and the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, asked Nigerian journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, if she was a socialist, as she tore through his private sector-led economy plans and made the case for socialist interventions. Atiku’s question was not alien to the language that had defined the PDP’s criticism of the APC. From their plans, it was clear the APC favoured more government control while the PDP went for a deviation from those policies to those where the private sector would have more of the reins, allowing market forces decide most things from petroleum product prices to the currency rates. APC campaigned on an expensive social intervention scheme for the most vulnerable while PDP towed the less popular route of focusing on improving the economy, citing examples of China and India who had taken millions out of poverty by taking a more capitalist approach to poverty alleviation. Their differing positions are exemplified by how they promised to handle the state-owned NNPC. While the opposition maintained that the way forward was privatization of the NNPC and similar state-owned, loss-making companies, the ruling party posited that government cannot hands off control of these assets and the economy to the private sector.

It is too early to tell if Nigeria rejected one ideology in favour of the other or if the results of the elections were influenced by other factors that have coloured the transparency and competency of elections in Nigeria over the years. Despite this, the 2019 presidential elections marked the first time that ideology dominated conversations around the elections. One factor that contributed to this was the shared ethnic background of the APC and PDP presidential candidates. It was no longer a question of whether the Fulani man would rule Nigeria but of which Fulani man should rule. The ethnic dichotomies that simplified decision making during the previous elections was taken out of the picture, allowing for ideology and policy inclinations to take the front seat of electoral dialogue.

After years in which the lingering effects of dictatorship define politics and democracy; in which the mystical ‘power of incumbency’ fanned the flames of voter apathy among the middle class, the youth in particular were exposed to a battle of ideology for the first time. The low voter turnout among this demographic was in stark contrast to their projected role in determining the elections. Nevertheless, the importance of developing political ideology among the Nigerian youth remains clear. Government policies are important. We have seen that government policies are more likely to affect our lives than ethnicity or religion. Given our diversity and the current state of the nation, it is imperative we focus on policy. While the result of the 2019 presidential elections seem to imply that a larger fraction of the electorate holds socialist leanings, it is crucial that going into the next elections, our ideologies must be in sync with our realities as a nation.

In an essay aptly titled ‘Nigeria, so you think you are a socialist?’ David Hudenyin chronicles Nigeria’s socialist policies through the years. He writes:

At present, Nigeria’s government interferes at all levels of the country’s economy, including agricultural subsidies, import subsidies, onerous business licensing regulations, multiple taxation, retail price controls, exchange rate controls, import and export licensing and tariffs, and import prohibitions to name just a few. With the world’s highest population of people living in extreme poverty, declining crude prices, rising insecurity and a budget that is nearly always in deficit, this interference is set to be the ruin of Africa’s most important economy. On the surface, Nigeria is a highly entrepreneurial environment, populated by business-minded, resourceful people. Below the surface however, our entire economic structure is held up by a plethora of 70s-era government largesse that is now unsustainable to the point of becoming a national existential crisis.

Across the world, a long list of countries from Singapore to Ghana who have needed to address the issues we currently face have adopted certain policies and they have worked. Luckily for us, the solutions to most of our problems already exist; sometimes these solutions are even older than the problems themselves. We don’t have to break new grounds; we can just copy what works. These solutions are in the fine print of ideology. Ideology morphs into policy and we live and die by government policy. No citizen is ever totally immune from the consequence of government policies; our realities make sure of that.


Since independence, Nigerian political parties have been motivated by factors detrimental to the development of its democracy. The structure and eventual collapse of the governments of the first and second republics can be ascribed to the parties maintaining deep roots in their ethnic orientations. From 1960-1983, a number of factors intensified the division of parties along regional and ethnic lines. The common feature was the parties shared ethno-regional ideology, seeking to capture and consolidate power in their respective regions. This corruption of party policy set the tone for the ideological barrenness that has come to define Nigeria’s political space. The return of multiparty democracy in Nigeria following the end of the short-lived Third Republic was expected to have brought about democratic consolidation. However, the lingering effects of military rule as well as a number of other factors rendered the opposition parties weak and unchallenging until recently.

The birth of real opposition following the formation of the APC in 2013 and its eventual rise to power in 2015 laid the framework for the shift that occurred in the just concluded 2019 General Elections. For the first time, ideology was allowed to take centre stage in the conversation, partly because the main presidential candidates shared a common ethnicity and religion. Nigerians were forced to consider policy over anything else and this, in turn, forced the parties to campaign on distinguishable left- and right-wing political ideologies. The quality of conversation around the elections improved as diverse opinions fell between the interventionist and big government policies of the APC manifesto and the private sector focused capitalist agenda of the opposition. The voting pattern appears to suggest that Nigeria emerged from these elections favouring a socialist direction, a problematic development in light of the country’s fortunes.

It is possible that the results of the 2019 presidential elections are more closely associated with personality politics, incumbency advantage, election malpractices and other factors that have challenged the competency of elections in the past. Nonetheless, it is the effect of these results that the country has to live with. At present, Nigeria faces an almost comical tragedy of surmounting misfortune amid a middle class shrinking either through emigration or by slipping into poverty. Without an end in sight to the problems it faces, the ‘giant of Africa’ finds itself at odds with the path it has voted to continue on. With a growing poverty problem and a shrinking government purse, a program of subsidies and socialist interventions is not only unsustainable but also quite dangerous.

As the 2019 elections have given us the opportunity to consider the utility of a different approach, it is critical that, going forward, Nigerians forsake ethnic or regional biases and begin to think of elections through the lens of policy and policy implications