Nigeria’s election: Peter Obi is more than social media hype according to our survey
28 September 2022
This piece was developed as a collaboration between Sofala Partners (political analysis and commentary) and our partner Emani (survey deployment and analysis)
Peter Obi is running for president. Despite his surprising emergence and vigorous support on social media, few expect him to win. The reason is simple: he is not a candidate from one of Nigeria’s two major political parties – the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) and the previously dominant People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Obi defected from the PDP in May when it became clear that he would not win the party’s presidential primary, instead opting to become the presidential candidate of the Nigerian Labour Party (LP) – a non-entity in the Nigerian political landscape – which received just over 5,000 votes in the 2019 presidential elections and holds only one seat in the National Assembly.
The scepticism towards Obi’s run is not unwarranted. No minor-party presidential candidate has exceeded 3.5% of the vote since the founding of the Fourth Republic in 1999. In recent elections, the trend has become even more stark, with no party outside the APC or PDP approaching even 1% of the vote. Common wisdom (and historical precedent) is that local party infrastructure and influence is critical in driving turnout in Nigerian elections, resources that the LP has precious little of. Similarly, while the enthusiasm for Obi on social media is undeniable, there is a common sentiment that this is likely driven by a relatively small group of young urban sophisticates in Lagos and other big southern cities and is unlikely to represent broader support or to translate into votes on election day. Available data certainly suggests that social media users are not representative of much of the Nigerian population. Just 44.5% of the country using broadband according to figures published by the Nigerian Communications Commission in August this year, and social media users are estimated to account for just 15% of the population (a percentage which may be over-estimated due to users with multiple accounts).
Figure 1: Candidates’ Twitter presence and engagement
While Obi only has about half the Twitter followers of Atiku Abubakar, engagement statistics illustrate the significant enthusiasm online around Obi’s candidacy, and the extent to which it outstrips that of the others.
However, our view is that while victory for Obi may be an uphill battle, his rapid ascendance – and the way it has been accomplished – will have implications well beyond the outcome of this election. Leveraging many of the networks and strategies that grew up around the #EndSARS movement, Obi’s candidacy is demonstrating the potential impact and pathway to harnessing the support of young people, who are pushing against the status quo. Even if Obi loses, a strong showing will signal a significant departure from how national politics have operated in Nigeria for the last 23 years it will demonstrate: the rise of a consolidated and powerful youth bloc as a political factor; a rejection of the status quo; the weakening of the traditional party duopoly; and, a viable pathway to national office that does not rely on insider politicking and local party infrastructure. But just how strong is Obi’s appeal?
There has been no shortage of ink spilled reflecting on Obi’s candidacy and the extent to which his online support may – or may not – translate into actual votes. However, until recently there has been very little actual data to back any of these claims up.
Given the historical nature of his candidacy, and potential implications for Nigerian politics going forward, Sofala teamed up with survey specialist Emani to contribute to filling the gap. What we found is that while the path to victory may not be easy, there does seem to be a very real groundswell of support amongst youth that stretches far beyond a narrow slice of the urban elite.
What we asked
In late August, we surveyed 110 young people (aged 18-35) in Osun State who were eligible to vote and self-identified as likely to do so. The sample included 58 young people in Osogbo (the largest urban centre in the state) and 52 people in the rural area of Egdebore, with a minimum of 20 Muslim and 20 Christian respondents in each location, to capture any key demographic differences in voting preference. Diversity in the sample was ensured by drawing multiple nodal points in Emani’s national network (a variation of respondent-driven sampling).
Why young people?
We focused on young people for two key reasons. Firstly, Obi’s candidacy is generally seen as being propelled by youth support and we wanted to test if this was true. Secondly, the youth makes up the majority of the electorate (51% according to the UNDP), as well as the vast majority of those who actually voted in the last elections (68% according to our calculations). This makes young people a potentially powerful voting bloc if aligned behind a common candidate. We could find no official data that broke down voting by age group. Our calculations are based on the youth accounting for 51% of registered voters of which 46% turned out in the last election as noted by the UNDP article, and registered voter and turnout figures for the last election as provided by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
Osun provides a particularly interesting lens through which to explore Obi’s appeal. In the July 2022 election for Osun governor, a PDP candidate ousted the APC incumbent, while the candidate for Obi’s LP secured less than 0.5% of the vote. This suggests that Osun is neither a political stronghold for the major parties nor a very promising playing field for the LP. The LP’s very limited influence and popularity in the state would also allow us to gain clarity on Obi’s personal appeal and the impact of this on ground-level support for his candidacy.
Additionally, we selected Osun for its religious diversity. The state has significant populations of both Muslims and Christians – groups that are often at the heart of identity politics in Nigeria. We also opted for a majority ethnic Yoruba state in the South region as we felt that Obi’s route to a strong showing necessarily runs through South, especially in the politically powerful majority Yoruba states and in zones beyond his own Igbo ethnic group. Finally, we wanted to avoid Nigeria’s largest, and most developed urban areas (e.g. Lagos, Ibadan, etc.) as these are the areas where Obi’s support is presumed to be strongest. Osogbo, the largest city in Osun, is a relatively small city by Nigerian standards.
What we learned
Support is evenly split among candidates, but major differences among demographic groups are clear
While there is a lot of nuance worth exploring, our headline takeaway is that Obi’s online popularity is translating into significant support on the ground. Roughly a third of our youth respondents told us that they intend to vote for Obi on election day, almost exactly equal to the number of respondents who said they intend to vote for Tinubu and Abubakar respectively.
Figure 2: Proportion of Osun respondents who intended to vote for each candidate (overall and by location and religion)
However, we also find that levels of support vary widely between the urban and rural areas polled, as well as between religions. Obi has a sizable advantage in Osogbo, but very thin support in Egbedore. While at one level this reinforces the idea that Obi is a candidate for urbanites, the opportunities, lifeways and expectations of young voters in Osogbo stand little comparison with those of larger cities like Lagos (which has a population twenty times the size of the Osun state capital). Unsurprisingly, given that both Tinubu (the APC candidate) and Abubakar (the PDP candidate) are Muslims, the Osun state Christians we surveyed appear much more inclined to support Obi.
Despite his limitations, Obi has broad appeal
Our headline findings certainly do not dispel the narrative that Obi’s support has been driven by his popularity online, and that his base is made up largely of young, urban Christians. In fact, internet and social media was far and away the most common means that our Osogbo respondents reported hearing about him. Our respondents in Egdebore – who were much less likely to support him – mostly reported hearing about him on the radio or by word of mouth.
Figure 3: How respondents hear about Obi by location
However, there is some interesting data to suggest that he may fare better amongst other groups than expected. Firstly, the number of respondents who believed the majority of their family would vote for Obi was very close to the number of respondents who reported an intention to vote for Obi, suggesting that there is at least a belief amongst respondents that he has a substantial number of supporters beyond young people. Strong belief that other people will vote for Obi may also be a check on last-minute defections on election day.
Secondly, and perhaps even more interestingly, the majority of respondents – even those that overwhelmingly indicated they would vote for another candidate – reported having a positive view of Obi. This suggests that his message is received at least somewhat favourably across all demographic groups, even when not delivered via social media.
Figure 4: Respondent views of Obi by location and religion
When those who intended to vote for a different candidate were asked about their thoughts on Obi’s candidacy, many had positive things to say about him regardless of demographics, with a large number of respondents focusing on potential issues with his viability as a candidate. Typical comments from those intending to vote for other candidates included:
“Good but his party is not known” – Tinubu supporter from Osogbo
“He is a good and reputable man but I prefer Bola Tinubu” – Tinubu supporter from Egdebore
“People in the North will not vote for him. He would have been the best candidate” – Atiku Abubakar supporter from Osogbo
“He is good, but not as popular as others” – Atiku Abubakar supporter from Egdebore
“Good for the post, but he might not be given the chance to rule” – Atiku Abubakar supporter from Osogbo
Analysing Peter Obi’s election chances
Despite strong support, limited traction with Muslims leaves few pathways to outright victory
Our findings of a high level of overall support for Obi in Osun suggests that his popularity is more than social media hype. In addition, although there appear to be lower levels of support for him among rural residents and Muslims, our survey suggests that his appeal reaches beyond the most developed urban centres.
That said, one part of the Obi narrative that few have pushed back against is that as a Christian from the South, he is likely to struggle to get votes in the more populous, majority Muslim north of the country. The low support amongst Muslim respondents that we see in the Osun data appears to confirm that he has had trouble making significant headway among Muslim voters. This will make it hard for him to secure support among voters – young people or otherwise – in the populous and majority Muslim north of the country.
Chasing a runoff – a second round is likely Obi’s best hope
The positive views and comments shared by non-Obi supporters are particularly interesting in the context of a potential runoff, which may be required if Obi manages to get a sizable share of the vote, denying either of the candidates an outright majority in the first round. Although some of our respondents questioned Obi’s viability, most found him to be a relatively appealing candidate, even when intending to vote for another candidate. Making it to a runoff would certainly demonstrate at least some level of viability. Residual appeal also suggests he might enjoy some success in picking up the votes of the third-place candidate. While we do not have data about views on the other candidates, it is feasible that the exceptionally long and highly visible tenure of both Tinubu and Abubakar in Nigerian politics, their close association with major parties, and their closer ties to identity politics would result in stronger negative sentiment among rival groups relative to Obi.
The bigger picture – Obi and Abubakar’s gains are Tinubu’s losses
While this survey was focused primarily on understanding the extent, and patterns of support for Obi on the ground, the data also provided some insights into the overall election dynamics, and how his candidacy might impact other candidates.
Perhaps most interesting is the relatively poor performance of Tinubu in the survey given that he is from Osun’s majority ethnic group (Yoruba) and a southerner. Notably, Abubakar significantly outperformed Tinubu in rural areas and among Christians, leaving Tinubu with a relatively narrow base in the state. It is also worth noting that many pro-Tinubu comments indicated that their support is linked to wanting to support a Yoruba candidate, opening the possibility that he may have even less support in non-Yoruba states.
While the data cannot tell us why Tinubu’s levels of support are lower than expected, it is possible that Tinubu’s choice of a Muslim VP candidate (resulting in an all-Muslim ticket) is at least part of the story. In contrast, Abubakar opted for a Christian VP candidate on his ticket. If Christians in the south are indeed unhappy with Tinubu’s Muslim-Muslim ticket, there is a real possibility that this will weaken Tinubu’s showing in the South and significantly hurt his chances at the Presidency overall. Age could also be a factor, particularly among young people. Rumours of Tinubu being significantly older than he claims have followed him (despite a lack of evidence to support them) alongside concerns about his health and resulting ability to effectively govern. However, given that Abubakar is 75, we would anticipate that Obi would likely be the main beneficiary of any concerns.
Obi as a spoiler
It is important to note that the survey only covers a section of a small population in one state, and is not representative of the population in Osun, let alone Nigeria nationally. Accordingly, we want to be careful not to overgeneralise. However, given that there is no obvious advantage for Obi in Osun (at least relative to other states in the south of Nigeria) and that Tinubu could be expected to do relatively well as a Yoruba candidate from the south, the results certainly suggest that Obi is poised for a strong showing and that Tinubu’s all-Muslim ticket may alienate some voters in the south.
While appealing primarily to young Christian urbanites may seem like a small slice of the electorate at first glance, it is actually a relatively large proportion of the potential national electorate. Nigeria’s population has been rapidly and consistently becoming more urbanised for decades with 53% of the population now living in urban areas according to World Bank data, the majority of which are in the south. Furthermore, as noted previously, the youth vote made up almost 70% of the electorate in the last election.
On the basis of our survey findings, our view is that Obi’s prospects for reaching a run-off may be better than many people believe. This would be a watershed moment and the first run-off since the founding of the Fourth Republic in 1999. However, a victory for Obi is a tough proposition unless he is able to garner significant support in the more vote-heavy north. The scope of this challenge is laid out in a recent analysis in The Africa Report, which notes that “the Muslim dominated areas of the north have only voted for northern Muslim Presidential candidates since 2003.”
Obi and Abubakar’s gains are Tinubu’s losses Nigeria’s social media movement and the rise of the youth bloc
Common wisdom in Nigeria (and indeed many countries around the world), is that young people simply do not turn up on election day. Several people that we spoke to in the course of developing this piece echoed this sentiment and – admittedly – it was our assumption as well. However, while it appears to be the case that only about half of registered young voters turned out in the last election, this was enough to account for a substantial majority of votes in the context of Nigeria’s dismal voter turnout (approximately 36% in the last election according to figures shared by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission).
A strong showing from Obi would be a clear signal that the youth vote is a force to be reckoned with, and one that needs to be taken seriously. Perhaps even more importantly, it would demonstrate that young people are a bloc of voters operating increasingly outside the traditional party infrastructure and proactively shaping the political landscape, not just responding to it.
We also believe that Obi’s popularity on social media is not a reflection of his ‘fringe’ candidature. Rather it points to the medium’s power as an organising force that can be leveraged by those who exist outside of the traditional power structures – a power that has already been shown in the impact of the #EndSARS protests, as well as the many attempts by the government to crack down on and regulate social media in their wake. A successful social media-driven campaign would be a game changer in Nigeria, suggesting that simply relying on the brute force of money and party influence may no longer be the only route to candidacy or indeed enough to ensure victory. Ideally, this would open up the political sphere to a much broader swath of candidates who have new ideas but lack the political connections (and, implicitly, the political obligations) required in the past.
A rejection of business as usual
If Obi is, in fact, a meaningful force in this election, it is also important to look at why. Of course, it is not arbitrary that Obi is supported by young people. We believe there are several factors to explain this, but the most important ones boil down to a rejection of the status quo.
Abubakar and Tinubu, both in their seventies, are each as representative of the Nigerian political old guard as any candidate could be. Both have been significant and constant figures in politics for decades. Abubakar has been on presidential tickets four times since 1999, including serving two terms as VP under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999-2007. Bola Tinubu, meanwhile, is commonly referred to as the “Godfather of Lagos”, where he served as governor for two terms, and is widely considered a political kingmaker, specifically credited with being a key force in propelling incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari to the presidency. When making his case for being the APC’s president, he famously said (in Yoruba) “Emi lokan” which translates to “it is my turn”, with the original Yoruba phrase having become a campaign slogan for him and his supporters.
Both Abubakar and Tinubu are also dogged by accusations of corruption throughout their political careers, including more recent accusations of vote buying in the presidential primaries. This is all in the context of a Nigerian economy and security situation that has gone from bad to worse in recent years under Buhari, another veteran of the political old guard.
Peter Obi is not exactly the picture of a young outsider. He is 61 himself, served as governor of Anambra State and ran alongside Atiku Abubakar on the PDP’s presidential ticket in 2019. However, he is known more as a successful businessman than politician, he is viewed as relatively free of corruption, and is commonly noted to have left the Anambra State coffers fuller than he found them. Perhaps most importantly, his money – and therefore his influence – is not seen to be the result of political debts that would need to be repaid. Relative to Tinubu and Abubakar, Obi represents a major step away from traditional politics in Nigeria.
Based on our survey of young voters in Osun State and our reading of the wider Nigerian political landscape, our view is that Obi’s candidacy will exceed the expectations of many and will have significant impact on the dynamics of the coming elections and the Nigerian political landscape in years to come, regardless of whether he wins. Not only will he disrupt the dynamics of the current election, but we anticipate that his relative success will serve as both a reflection of and a catalyst for change in Nigerian politics in many important ways that will shape the political landscape in years to come.
Taken in its entirety, Obi’s candidacy, if even moderately successful, appears to represent two critical and interlinked realities that spell change for Nigerian politics: (i) young people (and perhaps many older people as well) are tired of the way things have been done, and the lack of results that follow; and, (ii) there are now viable means to harness that dissatisfaction organise political movements and action that exist outside the traditional party infrastructure.
For this piece looking at Peter Obi’s unexpected emergence in the 2023 Nigerian presidential election, and what the implications might be, we wanted to go beyond speculation and anecdotal evidence. To do this, we joined forces with our trusted partner, Emani.
Emani is a company that rapidly develops and deploys, high-quality surveys across communities in Africa and Asia. We have produced what we believe is the first publicly available data looking at levels of support for Obi and other major candidates, as well as their views on Obi and his candidacy.
All of Sofala’s strategic and business intelligence advisory work is underpinned by grounded local insights generated by a long-established network of in-country researchers. Our partnership with Emani now allows us to complement such targeted insights with a broader set of community derived insights and perceptions in many of the key African markets in which we work.
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