1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

2019 Nigeria election: What you need to know

Ineke Mules
February 14, 2019

As Nigerians prepare to vote in presidential elections, DW looks at the players, the key issues and what role young people are playing in the political sphere.

Two men point to voting lists hung up on a wall next to a poster that reads 'polling zone'
Image: Reuters/Penney

This time next week Nigerians will be heading to the polls to vote in the general election. It looks likely to be a tight race between incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari from the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party (PDP). A record 84,004,084 people have registered to vote — an increase of 18 percent from the 2015 election.

With no opinion polls published indicating clear support for any particular candidate, it's difficult to accurately predict the outcome. Observers are already branding it one of the closest political races in the country's history.

Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar holds a microphone while speaking
Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar poses the biggest threat to BuhariImage: Getty Images/P.U.Ekpei

The players

73 candidates are on the 2019 ballot papers. Abubakar is widely considered to be Buhari's main challenger. Like Buhari, comes from the north, is muslim and is in his 70s. The former vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo has made a bid for the presidency five times for four different parties. His last shot at office was in 2015 when he was defeated by then-opposition leader Buhari.

Buhari's chances of victory this time are less certain than in 2015, when he became the first opposition leader to win a presidential election in Nigeria. The 76-year-old has been criticized for failing to meet many of his campaign promises and has even had to fight rumors that he has been replaced by a body-double after he spent months in 2017 recuperating in London from an unknown illness.

Read more: Election showdown between Nigeria's 'political grandfathers'

Any chance of a wildcard candidate has been effectively ruled out after attempts to choose another unity opposition candidate failed. "This makes it very difficult because these people are probably going to win in their local government or in their state, and then divide the votes among themselves," Olayinka Ajala, a lecturer in politics at the University of York, told DW.

What about the youth vote?

Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world; however this election has again made it clear that national politics remain dominated by the older generation. In 2018, a bill buoyed by the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, was signed into law, allowing politicians as young as 30 to run for the presidency. This year 10 candidates under the age of 40 have out their names forward. Chike Ukaegbu, the youngest candidate is 35 and is running on an education platform. 

Blogger and member of the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, Maryam Laushi, however believes that the top candidates, Buhari and Abubakar, do not provide young people with a clear enough choice.

Read more: Nigeria's youth 'ready to run' for political office

"The issue with Nigerian politics and the two major parties is that we do not clearly see a difference in ideology," she told DW. "And that lack of ideological direction makes it difficult for a voter to decide, as a young person, who to vote for. We want to know that we're going to get more jobs, we want to know that the future is secure for us."

Laushi thinks that cultural barriers in Nigeria, such as always placing the older generation on a higher level than the youth, are making change harder. 

"In some ways this is a good value to have, but when it comes to the open political space it makes it really difficult for young people to participate."

A stern-looking Muhammadu Buhari wearing sunglasses and a white robe
Buhari has been criticized for failing to diversity the economy during his four years in officeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

The big issues

Ultimately, it seems this election will be decided on the three key issues which also characterised the 2015 election: insecurity, the economy and corruption.


Ongoing insecurity in the north of the country is a major election issue for Buhari, as extremist group Boko Haram continues to hold on to or retake ground in the country's north-east. He has been criticized for failing to stem the insurgency. But while the extremist group frequently makes international headlines, it's easy to forget that Nigeria is struggling to contain other security crises.

This includes the conflict between farmers and herders in the north-west, south-east and Middle Belt region, which is often attributed to ethnic and religious differences. There is also the issue of the Niger Delta, where militants often target oil pipelines.

"The 2015 election was won and lost on issues relating to security, especially the Boko Haram issue," Ajala told DW. "But now there are so many more issues. Generally, the security situation around the country is really alarming."

Williams Attah, a trader in the city of Maiduguri in northeastern Borno State, told DW that the security situation in the region is at breaking point.

"[Based on] recent happenings, nobody is safe. Some people were kidnapped and some people were ambushed. The government needs to come out, put politics aside and face the situation."

Read more: Is Buhari winning the fight against Boko Haram?


Economic concerns are likely to play a significant role in next month's elections. Current unemployment data shows unemployment has risen to 23.1 percent, up from 18.1 this time last year, and the economy is again in danger of slipping back into recession.

While both frontrunners take a similar stance on the other key issues, they differ when it comes to economic concerns. While Abubakar takes a more market-friendly, business-like approach, Buhari's policies are more interventionist. This is not surprising, as, for decades, Abubakar has been viewed by the people of Nigeria as a businessman of sorts. During his campaign period he said that would privatize the country's oil business, saying that this would bring in more money than the state-owned enterprise ever had. The remarks sparked a heated debate, with his critics recalling his time as the country's vice president, during which Abubakar had unsuccessfully privatized various sectors.

"People are thinking that, even if he doesn't do anything else, he will at least generate employment and keep money flowing in the system," Ajala told DW.

Buhari has also been blamed for  failing to diversify the economy away from crude oil, which is the largest contributor to Nigeria's economy.

"This was one of the core campaign promises four years ago," said Ajala. "But to be fair to the government, they were unlucky enough to inherit a lot of debt in addition to the plunge in prices of crude oil."

Read more: Economic hardship leads to rise in suicide rate in Nigeria


Buhari frequently claims he has taken steps to tackle the country's endemic corruption. But although the government has taken some measures to reduce corruption —including the introduction of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) to manage government revenue — it still has a long way to go.

"I think the 'fight against corruption' is a mere saying," A'isha Alj Kabu, a student at the University of Maiduguri told DW. "[The government] is not practicing it."

A poster attached to a tree in Nigeria reads 'Election is not war, vote peacefully'
A poster reminding people to vote peacefully during the 2015 general electionImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S.Alamba

 Buhari's main rival Abubakar can also hardly boast a clean record. The former vice president has been implicated in an international money laundering scandal and is banned from travelling to the United States for a reason unknown to the public; he maintains that his visa is still being processed.

Read more: Nigeria: Tracking corruption via social media

The reality is that corruption remains so pervasive in Nigerian society that observers are already expecting allegations of fraud and vote buying to be voiced.

"There will be corruption," Ajala told DW. "It's practically impossible for the security apparatus to ensure free and fair elections in every polling booth."

But he remains optimistic for future elections:  "Nigeria's democracy is still developing and still emerging. So it will get better. The only thing is the extent to which it will be free and fair. As long as [violations are] not widespread, then it will be acceptable."