As Nigeria’s February 2023 elections draw nearer, interest and debate are naturally intensifying around possible outcomes and the future fortunes of different presidential candidates.1Uche Igwe, “Multiple Factors Could Shape the Outcome of Nigeria’s 2023 Elections,” Premium Times, 2023, As significant as this is, multiple factors will shape the elections’ outcomes. In this piece, I reflect on the texture of the sociopolitical space in which Nigeria’s 2023 elections will occur, considering potential influences on voting spaces and patterns that have not received much attention. I extend the concept of spoilers typically associated with human beings to an array of circumstantial issues that could deter Nigerians from voting, disrupt the electoral calendar, and/or lead to violence before, during, or after the elections.

I recently made a brief personal visit to Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria, at the end of January. The first thing I noticed as I drove to Lagos Island from the mainland was the long petrol queues. Like frequent power outages, Nigerians have become so accustomed to petrol shortages, they have become the standard subject of jokes. But the ongoing shortage seems to be one of the worst yet. What is worse is after queueing for hours, people are forced to buy petrol at exorbitant prices above approved pump prices—at least 400 Naira a liter instead of the official 185 Naira.2Dennis Erezi, “FG Quietly Approves ₦‎185 per Litre as Petrol Pump Price,” The Guardian, 2023, Prices of consumer goods which have been rising arbitrarily for months have become so precarious that they change in a matter of days.

Amid all this, Nigerians are struggling to access money to pay for essential commodities. One theory is that politicians are blaming the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) while hoarding the new notes “for inducement and vote buying.”3Chisom Adindu, “New Naira of Conspiracy and Sabotage,” Tribune Business, 2023, There is also speculation that the scarcity is part of a conspiracy to scuttle the elections by destabilizing the country.4Adeyinka Adeniji, “Petrol Crisis, Naira Swap and Conspiracy Theories,” New Telegraph, 2023, For some time now, Nigeria has operated a : an interbank rate of US$1 to N450 and a ‘black market’ rate of US$1 to about N710.5Abdulkareem Mojeed, “Nigeria’s FX Crisis Deepens as Gap Between Naira’s Official, Black Market Rates Widest in Six Years,” Premium Times, 2022,

To maximize purchasing power, people living outside Nigeria cannot rely on local exchanges of foreign currencies. Thus, I was forced during my visit to transfer ahead budgeted funds. On my way to an event one day, I could not access said funds and had to try to withdraw money from a nearby ATM, something I did with ease during another visit last September. That was when I noticed the queues, caused by the acutely short supply of redesigned Nigerian currency notes on the eve of a government deadline for citizens to hand in all old currency notes.6Sunday Isuwa, Mark Itsibor, Adebiyi Adedapo, and Achor Abimaje, “New Naira Notes: NASS Fumes As CBN Insists On January 31 Deadline,” Leadership, 2023, Though popular agitations led to an extended deadline, new notes remain scarce and Nigerians are now being forced to “buy” money from Point of Sale (POS) operators in order to meet daily needs.7Nimi Princewill and Stephanie Busari, “Nigeria Delays Plans to Replace its Banknotes After Chaotic Scenes at ATMs,” CNN, 2023, Just last week, a friend withdrew 12,000 Naira after paying an additional service charge of 2000 Naira, totaling 14,000 Naira, from a POS operator so she could buy groceries. Not everyone can afford this, particularly workers in the cash-based informal economy and those living in rural areas. Residents of insecure spaces like Borno State where protracted conflict has destroyed most banking infrastructure are even worse off.8Michael Olugbode, “Zulum: Boko Haram Has Left Us Bank Branches in Two of 27 LGAs,” This Day, 2023,

This situation makes it all the more intriguing that suspected members of the violent armed group, Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), were recently seen distributing large amounts of old Naira notes—up to 100,000 Naira per person (approximately US$217)— to commuters in the Lake Chad Basin region.9Olatunji Omirin, “ISWAP Distributes Old Naira Notes to Passengers on Borno Highway,” Daily Trust, 2023, Though this reportedly happened on December 13, 2022, the media did not report it until January 31, 2023, just ahead of the CBN deadline, raising speculation that the group needed to get rid of old notes. This seems unlikely given the group’s access to large amounts of foreign currencies obtained through criminal activities and well-structured commercial exchanges (Samuel, 2022) that span the Lake Chad Basin. Analyst Malik Samuel opines that it is more likely that ISWAP may have taken advantage of the hardship caused by the CBN policy to more deeply ingratiate itself among communities under its control—an act that can only expand the gulf between the Nigerian state and already alienated citizens in loosely governed spaces. It should be noted that ISWAP is only one of several non-state groups with sufficient control over vast territories and means of violence to prevent or distort voting.

Insecurity in northeast Nigeria alone has already disenfranchised many. Borno is notably one of very few northern states with high levels of uncollected PVCs. In recent weeks, the Borno State government has fully shut eight former official displacement camps, returning their former residents to ill-prepared residential areas still vulnerable to insurgent attacks.10Obi Anyadike, “In Northern Nigeria’s Conflict Zone, Camp Closures Make For High-Risk Returns, The New Humanitarian, 2022, At least 20 returnees reportedly died in a fatal crossfire during an ISWAP attack on the town of Malam Fatori in November 2022.11Obi Anyadike, “In Northern Nigeria’s Conflict Zone, Camp Closures Make For High-Risk Returns, The New Humanitarian, 2022, In addition to distancing people already multiply displaced by the conflict from national welfare and service structures, the entire operation heightens the risks of refueling the insurgency and prolonging sexual abuses of women—a notorious weapon in the ongoing conflict.

On a local radio station during my Lagos drive, INEC officials urged voters to collect their permanent voter cards (PVCs). As of December 2022, the electoral body was concerned that were yet to retrieve theirs, despite progressive devolutions of the collection process.12TVC News Nigeria, “6.7 Million Nigerians Yet To Collect Their Permanent Voter Cards,” 2022, That most of these are in states across the Southwest raises questions about levels of civic energy in the region in light of the geopolitical dynamics of Nigeria’s elections. Not to be dismissed are the looming shadow of the #ENDSARS Movement’s[i] second memorial mere months ago and the December 2022 killing by police of Lagos lawyer, Bolanle Raheem.13Kayode Oyero, “Outrage As Policeman Kills Lagos Lawyer On Christmas Day,” Channels TV, 2022, Tellingly, the pace of justice for SARS victims has been slowed and compromised by poor funding, political inertia, and alleged corruption.14Titilope F. Ajayi, “Nigeria’s #EndSARS struggle endures,” The New Humanitarian, 2022,

As I noted in a recent thought piece, young Nigerians are leaving the country in droves to escape increasingly harsh socio-economic realities.15Titilope F. Ajayi, “Nigeria’s #EndSARS struggle endures,” The New Humanitarian, 2022, As diasporan Nigerians, none of them will be able to vote this month. The cumulative effect of all the foregoing issues is a diminished and still diminishing voter populace amid rapidly deteriorating economic conditions for ordinary Nigerians. Irate youth in several states are already violently protesting the hardship being caused by the scarcity of redesigned Naira currency notes.16Stephen Angbulu et al, “New Naira Crisis: Violence Spreads in States, Three Killed, Banks Burnt,” Punch Newspaper, 2023, The few people I spoke with about the elections during my visit were determined to vote, but the economic crisis has since escalated. For those in Nigeria who have the means and civic agency and capital to get themselves to voting booths on February 25, these spoilers will either induce or deepen voter apathy, or galvanize their resolve to vote in a government that will transform the life of hardship Nigerians have grown used to.

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