Like many other presidential democracies worldwide, Nigeria uses a two-round system to elect its President. However, the unique modifications to the system make it like no other two-round system in the world and forces candidates to focus on broad nationwide appeal in order to emerge victorious.
The electoral system has two criteria for a first round victory: a winning candidate must receive the most valid votes nationwide and over 25% percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. Meeting both these requirements is needed to win outright and prevent a runoff. This is unlike most two-round systems, which tend to require a victor to simply gain 50%+1 in order to win in the first round.
Although every single presidential election in Nigerian history has been held under this system, one could easily have missed that fact if skimming electoral history as a second round has never actually been held. In fact, the last time a potential runoff played a significant role in a presidential election was the first presidential election in 1979 when a dispute over the definition of ‘two-thirds of states’ in a country with nineteen states rose to the Supreme Court. Ironically, that very question has resurfaced 44 years later as politics watchers have argued for months over the meaning of “at least two-thirds of all the States in the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory” — assuming that groups together the 36 states and the FCT, two-thirds is actually 24.67 states which could return the country to the politics of decimals if the election is close.
In the case that no candidate meets the 2/3 threshold, a second round of voting will be conducted. Mandated to be held within 21 days of the first round, a runoff would be held for the first time in Nigerian history. However, once again, there are modifications to the two-round system: instead of the top two candidates advancing to the second round, the candidate with the most votes automatically qualifies but their opponent whichever candidate wins the most states with a majority of the vote.
As a second round has never occurred, the section of the Constitution has not been directly tested in practice. Again, observers have noted ambiguity in the constitutional wording as it is unclear whether or not to exclude the votes of and/or states won by the already-advanced first-placed candidate.
To add even more potential confusion, winning the most votes in a runoff is not enough to win the election as victors are still required to reach the 2/3 percent threshold in a hypothetical runoff. If the candidate first-placed in the runoff fails to meet the quota again, a third round will be held that only requires a winner to get the most votes.
Why the conversation?
After decades of the potential for a runoff being overlooked, why is there buzz around the possibility now? Simply put: the potential for runoff has never been higher (perhaps aside from that 1979 election). The split field of three major candidates—Bola Tinubu (APC), Peter Obi (LP), and Atiku Abubakar (PDP)—in addition to one minor candidate with a strong regional support base (Rabiu Kwankwaso of the NNPP) has led to intense speculation about a runoff and its potential implications for Nigerian politics. While the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has asserted its preparedness in the case of a runoff, commentators have noted a general lack of awareness of the system’s intricacies that could lead to voter confusion if a runoff is needed.
We also make provision for the possibility of a presidential run-off, in case it happens. If it happens, we’ll have no issues and this year is no exception.INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu at Chatham House, 17 January 2023
In any scenario, a free and fair election on Saturday is likely to end with a geographically divided result. For Tinubu, Obi, and Abubakar, the road to 25% in 25 states may be just as important as the races for the most votes overall.