The Middle Belt Will Determine 2019 Winner

The Middle Belt Will Determine 2019 Winner

By Azuka Onwuka

Map highlighting the Middle Belt of Nigeria

Even though there is a geo-political zone called the North-Central in Nigeria, there has always been an area unofficially known as the Middle Belt in Nigeria. It comprises the Federal Capital Territory and the six states of the North-Central (Benue, Nasarawa, Kogi, Kwara, Niger, and Plateau) as well as Taraba State in the North East and the southern parts of Kaduna State and Bauchi State, both of which are in the North-West and North-East respectively. The areas that make up the Middle Belt are part of the North but also want to be recognised as a distinct zone, because they see themselves as sharing similarities as minorities within the larger Northern zone.

Until the 2015 election, much of the Middle Belt had not been voting for the candidature of Muhammadu Buhari when he contested in 2003, 2007, and 2011. One Middle Belt State he had won in those years is Niger State. He had fared badly in other states. But in 2015, he won virtually all the Middle Belt states. Even in Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba where he did not win, he lost narrowly to Goodluck Jonathan.

When Buhari contested for president in 2003 and 2007 as the candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), he failed to win the election, because his popularity was restricted to the North-East and North-West. In 2011, he used the platform of the Congress for Progressive Change to vie for the presidency. The same scenario played out. He won mainly in the North-East and North-West. Buhari won the seven states of the North-West, four of the six states of the North-East, and Niger State in the North-Central.

The 2014 coalition that gave rise to the APC changed the political fortunes of Buhari for the better at the 2015 election. For the first time, Buhari not only won a state outside the North; he also had the upper hand in the North-Central zone, winning four of the six states plus the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), and getting a minimum of 42 percent of the votes in Nasarawa and Plateau.

As the 2019 election draws near, it is obvious that the presidential candidates of the two key parties, the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party, will emerge from the North. President Buhari, who is from Katsina State in the North-West, is the presumptive candidate of the APC, while the candidate of the PDP is not known yet.

Whoever the candidate of the PDP will be, it is believed that Buhari will garner much more votes in his North-West and neighbouring North-East than the candidate of the PDP. This is because of the belief in the North-East and North-West that Buhari adequately represents the ethnic and religious interests of the two zones.

However, unlike in the 2015 election when Buhari was untested as a democratic leader and therefore had the larger-than-life image of a leader that would transform Nigeria, 2019 will be different, because there are some things he promised to do that he has not been able to achieve, especially on security, the economy and anti-corruption fight. Also since his opponent will emerge from the North, the percentage of votes he got in the North may be affected, as his opponent will also have his own supporters and sympathisers from the same North.

Furthermore, with Professor Yemi Osinbajo from the South-West as Buhari’s running-mate, Buhari will do well in the South-West. But the margin between Buhari and his opponent will not be wide. It will not be very much different from the margin between Buhari and Jonathan in 2015.

In addition, the South-East and South-South will not go Buhari’s way. Buhari had the opportunity of winning over these two zones immediately after the 2015 election, but he did not grab that. Rather than showing them love and getting their support, he and many of his supporters had argued that the two zones should first show Buahri love to get his support. So after three and half years in office, things have not got better between Buhari and the two zones. On the contrary, the relationship seems to have deteriorated.

Therefore, that leaves out the Middle Belt. There are prevailing factors that will affect the voting pattern of the people of this area in 2019. The first is security. This area has witnessed unprecedented killings and arson recently by killer herdsmen. The killings have been occurring virtually every week from state to state without visible effort from the government to stop them and punish the culprits. Prominent members of this zone, including Lt Gen Theophilus Danjuma, a former minister of defence, had accused the government and security agents of colluding with the killer herdsmen to kill the people of the zone. This perspective has not create a good image for Buhari in the Middle Belt.

Also, there are ethnic and religious factors that may affect the voting pattern of the Middle Belt in 2019. Unlike those in the North-East and North-West, people of this zone are not mainly of the Kanuri, Fulani and Hausa ethnic groups. If there are Fulani and Hausa in this area, they will be very low. The Middle Belt people see themselves as minorities in an area controlled by the predominantly Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups. When things go well, they see themselves as part of One North, but whenever they perceive discriminatory actions, they conclude that such is so because they are not seen as “core North.”

On the religious front, there is a high population of Christians in this area in contrast to the high population of Muslims in the North-East and North-West. Whenever issues suspected to be discriminatory arise against them, they conclude that they are being targeted because of their religion.

The way the contestants will appeal to them on ensuring that the people are safe in their homes, farms and communities and will not be targeted for discrimination because of their ethnicity and religion will determine how this zone will vote. The entire Middle Belt will definitely not vote alike. Some states may vote for a certain candidate more while another may vote for the opponent more. But the candidate that the Middle Belt favours more may emerge the winner.

Buhari will hope to retain the states he won in 2015, while his opponent will try to wrest some states from him. Buhari emerged winner in 2015 with a difference of 2,571,759 votes. If all the conditions of the 2015 election were to remain the same and he lost 1.5 million votes to his opponent, he would lose the 2019 election.

In the 2019 election, Buhari’s opponent will not determine so much what the voting pattern of Nigerians, especially the Middle Belt, will be. That will be determined by how Buhari has reacted to issues concerning them.

Even though the presidential election will hold next year, it is merely five months away. But a day can change everything in an election. Few months from now the parties will choose their candidates and full campaigning will commence. Opinions may still swing left or right depending on what happens between now and the election day. It is hoped that it will be a peaceful and transparent election.

However, it is very important that the amendment of the electoral act is completed before the 2019 election to ensure that biometric accreditation of voters with smart card readers rather than the controversial “incident form” is used and that accreditation data and election results are transmitted electronically from polling units to collation centres, to reduce the rate of electoral fraud in the process, and ensure that Nigerians get a true reflection of the their votes.

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