On 28 March, Nigeria conducted a historic presidential election. Despite a chaotic voter registration process and a fear of violence, the polls went smoothly – the result, when it was announced, was unprecedented. For the first time in Nigerian history, an incumbent president had been defeated. Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) swept to power by more than 2.5 million votes, and – to his great credit – President Goodluck Jonathan gracefully conceded. It was, by all accounts, a milestone for both Nigerian and African democracy.
But even though the foreign correspondents had written their tributes and the international observers had gone home, Nigerian voters weren’t quite finished.
Just two weeks later, on 11 April, most of the country was back at the ballot box, this time choosing governors for 28 of Nigeria’s 36 states (the rest had been decided earlier in by-elections). The state governor elections weren’t quite as tidy as the presidential vote. Marred by allegations of fraud, intimidation and acts of violence, they nonetheless provided another ringing endorsement of the APC. In total, the new party secured 19 of the governorships up for grabs, with eight states abandoning President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in favour of the APC’s promise of change. They were undoubtedly aided by the scheduling of the state vote after the national vote; designed to help security and ease pressure on the Independent National Electoral Commission.
In some ways, state governors are more powerful than the president himself
‘I suspect that Buhari’s win and the way it was received, certainly had a huge impact on the pattern of voting for the governorships. It became easy for "floating" voters to decide to follow the tide of change in the country by opting to vote for the choice of the majority of Nigerians,’ says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
The results certainly make life easier for Buhari’s new government, which will take over from the PDP on 29 May. In fact, in terms of the APC’s ability to deliver on its manifesto, the state governor elections may be more significant than the presidential vote – even though they have received exponentially less attention outside of Nigeria.
‘Nigeria's 36 state governors are among the most powerful politicians in the country, controlling budgets bigger than those of many African countries and wielding influence that can decide which candidates go on presidential tickets,’ explains Reuters.
Take Lagos State, for instance, which has an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of US$91 billion. That’s nearly US$30 billion more than Kenya. Or Kaduna State, which is not known as an economic powerhouse, but still boasts a GDP of over US$10 billion. That’s higher than 22 African countries, including Benin, Rwanda and Guinea.
More troubling for the APC is its failure to capture any of Nigeria’s oil-producing states
In some ways, given Nigeria’s immense size and population, state governors are more powerful than the president himself, especially when it comes to issues that directly impact on the daily lives of citizens – such as infrastructure development and service delivery. In Nigeria’s federal system, governors are primarily responsible for implementing policy, which gives them huge leeway to develop and interpret it as they wish.
‘Governors are really powerful,’ says Atta-Asamoah. ‘The size of Nigeria creates a huge powerbase for governors at an economic level. It’s almost like running a country of your own. In terms of actual delivery of projects on the ground, they play a huge role, and it’s a very good entry point for the pursuit of personal political ambition at the federal level… especially if someone wanted to rise through the party ranks to vie for the presidency.’
That’s why it was so important for the APC to follow up their impressive performance in the presidential vote with an equally impressive showing at state level. If governors disagree with the president, they can effectively halt policy implementation and make it near impossible for the national government to function effectively.
Jonathan and senior PDP officials have complained about exactly this. Jonathan’s administration was lambasted internationally for failing to rescue the 200-odd schoolgirls captured at Chibok (the subject of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign), but it in turn blamed APC state governments in north-eastern Nigeria for failing to do anything about it. This was political bluster, of course, but it was also an implicit admission that the national government had less practical authority than state governments.
Buhari’s election shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for Nigeria's problems
In terms of the fight against Boko Haram, the APC won’t be able to play this particular blame game. With the same party in both national and state governments in the affected north-eastern areas, the APC should be able to coordinate state and national policy. More troubling for the APC is its failure to capture any of Nigeria’s five oil-producing states. ‘This will be of huge concern to President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, as militant groups could disrupt oil production and starve the federal government of much-needed oil revenue. It is unlikely that the PDP governors in the five states would help General Buhari rein in the militants,’ writes Chris Ewokor for the BBC.
This kind of detail illustrates just how difficult Buhari’s job will be. In a country of Nigeria’s size and complexity, the outsized role of state governors is evidence that power is fractured. It is a reminder that the man at the very top can’t do it all by himself. It is a warning, too, to all those who thought Buhari’s election was some kind of panacea for Nigeria.
Ultimately, this means that state governor elections – while less glamorous – are just as important as the national vote. For those who want to understand Nigeria, they deserve just as much attention.
Simon Allison, ISS Consultant