The posters lining the roads of Lagos show the face of a smiling, bespectacled 71-year-old above a slogan promising renewed hope. Vote for Bola Ahmed Tinubu, pedestrians and drivers negotiating the chaos of the Nigerian commercial capital are told. Vote for peace, justice, unity.
On Saturday, the 6 million inhabitants of Lagos who have collected their voting cards will have to decide whether Tinubu and his ruling All Progressives Congress might fulfil any of these promises. So too will another estimated 81 million voters among the 220 million inhabitants of Africa’s most populous country. Their collective decision will determine the result of Nigeria’s seventh presidential elections since the end of military rule in 1999.
Few doubt the importance of the poll. Analysts speak of a crucial turning point after several years of worsening insecurity and acute economic troubles. Many see a credible poll and progress in tackling the country’s multiple problems as key to stability across a swath of Africa.
“It’s a really very important election and one that will be watched very keenly by people outside Nigeria,” said Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s programme director for Africa.
The election is as unpredictable as it is significant. For the first time in decades, a third candidate has a credible chance of unseating those representing Nigeria’s two dominant parties: Tinubu for the APC and 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar for the People’s Democratic party. This is Peter Obi, 61, a businessman turned politician, whose dynamism and promise of a “fresh breath of air” has won much of the youth vote and a substantial lead in many polls.
But it is Tinubu who is seen by analysts as the favourite to win Lagos and nationally too. The almost total lack of activity at Tinubu’s sprawling mansion in the plush neighbourhood of Ikoyi and at the APC’s headquarters on Friday suggest the hugely wealthy veteran politician believes they are right.
“Obi has been able to make some inroads in Lagos … but Tinubu is a larger than life figure in Lagos politics and it is very difficult to imagine him not winning there … but that does not make it impossible,” said Leena Koni Hoffmann-Atar from the Chatham House thinktank in London.
Known as the “godfather of Lagos”, Tinubu fought against repressive military rule, then won two terms as Lagos governor from 1999 to 2007. He won praise for taming the city’s appalling traffic, rubbish and organised crime and a series of high-profile infrastructure projects are still seen as testament to his efficiency by many in the city.
Since then Tinubu has overseen the choice of his successors and played a key role as a kingmaker at a national level too. Many see him as a “power behind the throne” of Muhammadu Buhari, the outgoing two-term president.
But Tinubu remains a deeply controversial figure, facing questions over his health and historical allegations of corruption, which he denies. A campaign slogan “It’s my turn” has been seen as a demand for the many people who owe him political or financial favours to now pay their dues, underlining the strong sense that Tinubu’s power rests not on a popular mandate, record or ideas, but a complex mesh of patronage networks and a type of politics that has failed Nigeria.
“The system just isn’t working any more. We are tired of all of them. We just want a working system,” said Ife Ogunbule, 30, a banker in Lagos.
It is unclear if such anger will translate into a vote for Obi, or even damage Tinubu. Official results could take up to five days to be announced after the polls close, and a second round runoff is possible, but unlikely, analysts say.
“Obi might not have what it takes … even if he has good intentions,” said Ogunbule.
Others said that, for all his flaws, at least they could be confident that Tinubu could get things done.
As problematic for those seeking to challenge Tinubu’s power is the vast political machine he commands. Turnout in Nigerian elections has declined markedly in recent polls and most analysts say only a huge increase in young voters could bring Obi to power. The ruling party’s reach in rural areas, and its mobilisation of ethnic and sectarian communities, is potent.
A further element of unpredictability has been injected by the central bank’s decision to withdraw and replace every naira banknote in Nigeria. The effort is aimed in part at making it harder to rig the election but has caused big disruption.
In one Lagos market on Friday, vegetable sellers instructed buyers on how to make electronic bank transfers to pay for yam, peppers and potatoes. Those who did not have bank accounts – often the very poor – looked on disconsolately.
Nearby, an angry crowd formed outside a bank unable to supply cash to those hoping to stock up on basics before the polls, fearing post-election violence that could shut down the city. News that a politician from an opposition party had been arrested with almost $500,000 in cash to be handed out in election bribes prompted mocking jokes that the suspect had dollars because he couldn’t get naira.
Olanepekun Turago, 56, a stallholder selling rice and beans, said that only God knew who would win the elections and that He would tell her whom to vote for when she entered the booth.
“We must pray for a better future for Nigeria,” she said. “We must wish Nigeria the best of luck.”