Nigerian Elections: Business as usual or breaking the norm?

This year Nigerians will go to the polls and elect its fourth president since 1999 when the country transitioned from a military to civilian government. From a distance the dizzying array of 63 candidates, all competing for the highest political office in the country makes for a colourful display of democratic exuberance. However, despite the numerous candidates and projected record number of voter turnout for this year’s election, Nigeria’s hobbling democracy is still mired in ethnic regional alliances that were by and large manufactured during British colonization. In 1947 the British introduced a new Nigerian Constitution to insure successful management of Nigeria’s diverse ethnic groups as well as indirect control for successful extraction of resources.[1] This new constitution brought forth a federal arrangement equipped with semi autonomous regional enclaves based on ethno-religious identity. The outcome resulted in the Ibo (in the east), the Yoruba (in the west) and the Hausa and Fulani (in the north). The various ethnic groups of Nigeria mixed in to the new towns that grew with trade and administration. British bureaucracy demanded the need to identify people to meet official classification. The labelling would underline divisions within Nigerian society. Diverse ethnic groups were encouraged to think of themselves in terms of the main tribal grouping,[2] hence why the absorption of dozens of sub-ethnic groups exist within and assume the Yoruba identity today.

The religious, regional and ethnic tensions that intensified under colonial rule contributed toward Nigeria’s tumultuous political history. Since independence in 1960, Nigeria has had numerous coup d’état’s, multiple constitutional revisions, failed secessionist movements, military governments and four republics. In an attempt to mitigate these fissures in Nigerian society, in 1999 the Peoples Democratic Party put forth an unwritten power sharing agreement, called zoning. Zoning rotates the presidency every two terms or every 8 years between the north and the south.

Despite the best intentions, these changes are cosmetic at best. They are still predicated on colonial political structures. Under colonization Nigeria was based on 3 regions: Eastern, Western and Northern based on ethno-religious persuasion. Since then Nigerian elite have simply partitioned the country even more based on the same markers. Nigeria is now made up of 36 states, which are grouped into 6 geo-political zones.[3] They are as follows: south-west, south-east, south-south, north-central, north-east and north-west. These fragmented regions and geopolitical zones are supposed to provide greater access to power and resources for all Nigerian citizens. Also the increase of autonomy of ethno-religious regions operates against the political and social integration within the country thereby further weakening the state’s ability to manage conflicts as they arise. Political and economic power has been bottlenecked by the dominant ethnic groups, which disenfranchise minorities.

Incumbent Jonathan Goodluck’s decision to run for president is a litmus test for the zoning agreement. Goodluck who is from the south is in violation of this agreement as the next four years is reserved for a northern candidate. Goodluck a member of the minority group Ijaw and from the Niger Delta region would signal two shifts within the Nigerian political system. Firstly it would represent a break from the tripodal politics of the three big ethnic groups.[4]Secondly the south-south is the only geo-political zone to produce a president, which ironically is the oil resource breadbasket of the country.[5]

The results from a recent electoral opinion poll projects a victory for President Jonathan Goodluck with 69 to 60 percent of votes over all other candidates, which also indicated that he could do well in the 19 Northern states.[6] Should these calculations hold true it challenges the prevailing notion of a north south monolith and prompt the questions: are we beginning to witness a gradual shift in voting habits along ethno-regional partisanship to one based on a results oriented candidates? If so will this shake up the political culture that has been responsible for so much deprivation in fostering greater governance accountability and transparency?


[1] Africa South of the Sahara 2003 regional surveys of the world 32nd edition pg 773

[2] Identity Transformation and identity politics under structural Adjustments in Nigeria edited by Attahiru Jega

[3] Http://

[4], 2011. Is Goodluck Nigeria’s bad luck? [online] (30th March 2011) Available at: %5BAccessed 30th March 2011]

[5], 2011. Nigeria: 2011 Elections – Why all geo-political zones should support Jonathan[online] (Updated 24th June 2010) Available at: [Accessed 30th March 2011]

[6] allAfrica, 2011. Nigeria – Another survey predicts victory for Jonathan [online] (Updated 29th March 2011) Available at: [Accessed 30th March 2011]

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