What is a run-off election and how would it happen in Nigeria?

Dec 12, 2022|Stears Explains

In Nigeria, it is not enough to simply get the most votes. The constitution has a unique requirement for winning that seeks to ensure that successful candidates at the national and state levels can win with the broad level of support needed to govern effectively.

So, what is a run-off election?

A runoff election is typically the second round of elections held to determine a winner when no candidate in the first election meets the required threshold for victory. Runoff elections can be held for both presidential and governorship elections.

When does a run-off election occur?

The constitution addresses this specifically in Section 134 for the presidency and Section 179 for governorship elections. While the first requirement is getting the most votes, the second requirement involves receiving one-quarter of the vote from two-thirds of all constituent units—states in the case of a federal election and local governments in a state election.

A run-off election happens when no candidate can fulfil both of the requirements explained above. In that case, the winner would be determined by a run-off, a subsequent election between the top two candidates when no candidate wins in the first instance. 

Two candidates would advance to the next stage—the candidate with the most votes and the candidate with the majority of votes in the highest number of states. The second candidate might not necessarily have the second most votes but performed strongly enough in enough states.

There are provisions for two run-off elections. The first still requires the winner to receive a quarter of the votes in at least two-thirds of the states in the federation or local governments in the case of states. However, if no candidate can deliver on that point, the next election is won by whoever has the most votes.

History of run-off elections in Nigeria

No Nigerian presidential or governorship election has advanced to a run-off election.

Most supplementary elections have been ‘reruns’—reconducting the election in areas that saw the contest disrupted or affected in the preceding election, especially where the margin between the two top candidates was less than the number of votes in that area. Recent examples include the keenly contested governorship elections in Kano in 2019 and Osun in 2018.

However, the closest case to a run-off was in 1979, where the major candidates were representative of the major ethnic groups, and their expected strong performance in the region added to the contention of that election cycle. Shehu Shagari received the most votes during the election but only received at least a quarter of the vote in 12 states.

Two-thirds of the then nineteen states is 12.6, and the argument became whether the number should be rounded up to 13—which would mandate a run-off. Shagari’s legal team, led by the late Richard Akinjide SAN, argued that his performance in Kano (he polled 19.9%) was worth the missing 0.66%. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Shagari, who was sworn in.

How does INEC prepare for run-off elections?

INEC will prepare for the run-off elections by distributing new ballot papers and other electoral materials to the respective polling units. The necessary logistical and personnel arrangements like security, ad-hoc staff and other materials will also be deployed for the run-off elections.


How soon after the main election a runoff election can be expected?

The 2022 Electoral Act states that where no candidate meets the requirements of the majority of votes cast and the electoral two-thirds, a run-off election shall be organized by INEC within 21 days in line with the provisions of Section 134 (2) to (5) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).

Where else?