Nigeria's presidential election is now one month away, and President Muhammadu Buhari is not contesting because he is serving his second and final term. The four leading candidates this time are Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP). These three points below will determine who is elected president.

1. Can they fulfil the 25% threshold?

Section 134 of Nigeria's constitution says a candidate can only be deemed to have won the presidential election if they have won at least 25% of votes in two-thirds of all states and the capital Abuja. This means a winning candidate must not only have significant electoral support spread throughout the country, but they must also have extensive party infrastructure across the country in order to get out the vote.

2. Can they win their base?

All top four candidates are experiencing some difficulties in their bases.

  • The PDP's Atiku struggles to rally his base in the northeast and even suffered a heavy defeat there when he ran against President Buhari in 2019. Buhari won about 90% of the votes in Yobe and Borno states for example. This helped the president to eclipse Atiku's lead in PDP strongholds in the south.
  • In that same election, the ruling APC relied on Bola Tinubu to deliver an emphatic victory for President Muhammadu Buhari in the southwest – given Tinubu is the most powerful politician in that region. But his influence over the outcome there was underwhelming. The party lost in two out of six states in the southwest and narrowly won in two others. It also lost one state gubernatorial election held last year to the main opposition, PDP.
  • The smaller LP won none of the two gubernatorial elections held last year, but its presidential candidate Peter Obi is highly popular among voters in his own base in the southeast. Even so, the ruling class there mostly does not support him. His own state governor Chukwuma Soludo declared in November that he cannot win this presidential election. The governors of the four other southeastern states are also leaning towards the PDP's Atiku or the APC's Tinubu.
  • Meanwhile, Rabiu Kwankwaso has maintained a very strong 'Kwankwasiyya' movement in the country's most populous state, Kano, and neighbouring states in the northwest. The NNPP presidential candidate is expected to win this area in a fair contest, but the ruling APC controls the area and can thwart the popular will by manipulating the electoral process. This is evidenced by the 2019 Kano gubernatorial election where Kwankwaso's protégé Abba 'Gida Gida' was on the verge of defeating the unpopular state governor Rabiu Kwankwaso, who had previously been filmed collecting cash from a contractor. But the vote-counting process was violently disrupted with Gida Gida in the lead, and a rerun was announced in some constituencies. The ruling party then won the rerun.


3. Can they beat the zoning rule?

Every presidential election in Nigeria could be summarised as an attempt by bastions of the political elite to decide whose turn it is to rule the country. Since civilian rule was restored in 1999, the elite have tried to answer this question using the zoning rule.

This informal rule says the president and his vice cannot be of the same religion, and that power must oscillate between the north and south every two terms. Power is 'zoned' to a religion and a part of the country.

However, this rule has been interpreted differently and there have been attempts to beat the rule in the past. For example, Goodluck Jonathan, from Bayelsa state in the south, ran for a second term in 2015 even though it was believed that the north had not finished using up its own turn; Jonathan's northern predecessor had died in office and power had prematurely fallen to the southern leader.

Now, Tinubu, from southern Lagos, claims it is his turn because Buhari, from northern Katsina, will have been in power for eight years when his final term ends in May. But Tinubu, a Muslim, has picked a Muslim vice-presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, Atiku, from northern Adamawa, claims his own party was not in power for the last eight years and so the zoning rule does not apply to him. Then Obi, or at least many of his supporters, believes his own region should have its turn now. The southeast has not produced a president or vice president since civilian rule was restored.

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