Nigeria’s Peoples Democratic Party is seeking to win at gubernatorial elections after it lost its grip on national power in Africa’s biggest oil producer when President Goodluck Jonathan was defeated in a vote last month.
Nigerians will elect governors in 29 of the 36 states of Africa’s largest economy on Saturday, having voted out on March 28-29 the presidential candidate of a party that had won every election since the end of military rule in 1999. The PDP is seeking to consolidate its power in the 17 of its 21 states that it already controls and win in key battlegrounds, such as Lagos state, home to the nation’s commercial capital, and the oil-industry hub of Rivers state.
“The PDP as a party needs a minimum number of governors for it to be able to bounce back,” Hussaini Abdu, an Abuja-based political scientist and Nigeria country director of ActionAid International, a non-profit organization, said by phone. “They are also fighting for their survival.”
The PDP has seen a wave of defections to the All Progressives Congress since its candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, beat Jonathan with 52.4 percent of the ballots cast in the presidential vote. Controlling important states in Nigeria’s federal system would allow the PDP to continue to pose a strong threat during Buhari’s four-year term and position the party to take back power in 2019, according to PDP spokesman Olisa Metuh.
While the opposition’s presidential win paves the way for the first democratic transition of power since Nigeria gained independence from the U.K. in 1960, the state elections may still be marred by violence and attempts at rigging that have characterized previous votes in the country.
The governors “have more impact on the people and therefore the people have more at stake,” said Clement Nwankwo, an election monitor and executive director at the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre. “The passions will be higher. The competitions will be more intense.”
Most states get the bulk of their money from oil income distributions from the federal government, which has an annual gross revenue of about $70 billion. At stake for the governorship contenders is the power to dispense and receive such cash and patronage.
States control about 50 percent of government spending in Nigeria, said Stanley Achonu, operations lead at BudgIT, a Lagos-based organization that works to bring transparency to public spending in Nigeria.
“In terms of control of resources, the state elections are as important as presidential elections,” Achonu said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “The state governors, largely unchecked and unscrutinized by the public, have received only a passing glance from a general populace that assume most of the resources are spent by the federal government.”
Lagos, an APC stronghold that has been governed by key party leaders Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola since the return to democracy, handed the party a victory in the presidential vote, with Buhari beating Jonathan by 160,133 votes out of a total of nearly 1.5 million cast.
“Lagos is too important for the APC to lose,” Buhari said in an April 7 statement after a campaign rally to support the party’s governorship candidate, Akinwunmi Ambode, a former accountant-general for the state.
In the PDP’s bid to rebuild, it’s fighting hard to make gains in Lagos in the country’s southwest with its candidate, Jimi Agbaje, a pharmacist and businessman, said the PDP’s Metuh.
“The battleground is in the southwest,” Metuh said by phone. “We want to rid ourselves of fair-weather friends,” he said, referring to the politicians defecting to the APC.
Following the pattern of the presidential election, it’s likely that Buhari’s APC may win many states in the north and the southwest, while the PDP will probably retain its strongholds in the southeastern states, said Francois Conradie, a political analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC Independent Economists.
With a crash in crude prices, down by about 50 percent since last year’s peak in June, most governors will have to rethink how to make their states more economically independent from the central government, said Manji Cheto, vice-president at consultancy Teneo Intelligence.
The naira has dropped 17 percent against the dollar in the past six months, the worst performer of 24 African currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
Both main parties have promised to boost spending on health care and security, increase employment and improve access to education. The APC’s campaign pledges included targeting an economic growth rate of 10 percent and creating 1 million jobs annually.
Those ambitions may be difficult to realize. Of the 36 states, only Lagos, which generates 75 percent of its own revenue, could survive without the monthly cash allocations from the central government by trimming spending or selling bonds, according to National Bureau of Statistics data.
Despite the fierce competition to secure state access to dwindling oil revenue, Nigerians will want to replicate what election monitors, including the European Union, said was a relatively free, fair and peaceful presidential vote, said Cheto.
“The March 28 elections have made everyone feel a sense of national pride,” she said by phone from London. “People are keen to see a repeat of that event and I think they will broadly show restraint.”