Nigeria, Africa’s putative demographic and economic giant, remains trapped in its own deep political cobwebs. The controversies surrounding the 2023 general elections held on February 25 have now added another layer to the complex problem, due particularly to the poor conduct of the presidential elections featuring Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar, of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Peter Obi of the Labor Party. After 24 unbroken years of multiparty democratic rule, this round of elections may unhinge the country’s fragile ethnic, religious, and regional equilibria. The consequences could subvert national unity and social cohesion and impact the stability of the neighboring sub-regions of West and Central Africa if allowed to fester.
The announcement of Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All People’s Congress, APC, as winner of the presidential polls by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) immediately prompted mixed reactions, mostly of disbelief and condemnation especially among young and first-time voters. The two other leading presidential candidates—Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP)—have gone to the Nigerian Supreme Court to contest the process and the results announced by INEC. In a country where elections are won or lost either through the ballot or in the courts, it may be premature for the presumed winner to celebrate what may be a pyrrhic victory. The state of play today is that the country is literally caught between a state of widespread anxiety and disillusionment among citizens, particularly those that feel disenfranchised by perceived voter suppression, intimidation, and the glaring shortcomings of the electoral commission during the elections.1Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, ”Votes, Violence and Validity: Our Understanding of Nigeria’s 2023 Sub-National Elections,” March 21, 2023, in https://www.cddwestafrica.org/reports/votes-violence-and-validity-our-understanding-of-nigeria-s-2023-sub-national-elections/
In no particular order of severity, the 2023 general elections have thrown up a plethora of issues that a new government can only sweep under the carpet at great risk. The first one is how to quickly contain and manage the reawakened appetite of millions of young voters determined to reassert and reinsert themselves back into the mainstream of national politics. This would mean “retiring” the older generation of politicians and power brokers long accustomed to having their say and way with brazen impunity. Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 years who currently make up about 40 percent of the 93.5 million registered voters nationwide have become aware of the power of their vote and are eager to exercise their rights having seen from the election that numbers indeed matter in the eventual outcome of any election.2Efetobor Stephanie Effevottu, “Nigerian Youth’s Participation in the 2023 Elections: Defying the Odds and Forging Ahead,” Kujenga Amani (Special Issue: 2023 Nigerian Elections), February 24, 2023, in https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2023/02/24/nigerian-youths-participation-in-the-2023-elections-defying-the-odds-and-forging-ahead/
The election also exposed the myth that only an opaque and corrupt politician backed by a political structure that privileges electoral malpractices can win an election. The upset caused by “new-breed” politicians without the backing of a godfather that controls established structures has shown Nigerians that the old order is fast receding and can no longer secure and guarantee any convincing electoral victory for those who rely on them. In Abia State in Southeastern Nigeria, for instance, a first-timer politician and former bank chief executive, Alex Otti of the Labour Party, won the governorship election by defeating the candidate of the incumbent ruling PDP, which had held on to power since 1999. For the first time since the return to civilian rule in 1999, the top three presidential candidates each won in 12 states—notably in places once considered to be outside their traditional political spheres of influence. Surprisingly, in Lagos State where the ruling All People’s Congress had won every governorship election since 1999 and where Bola Tinubu continues to call the shots after his two-terms as governor for eight years (1999-2007), the party lost to Peter Obi and the relatively new Labour Party.3Stephanie Busari, “Nigerian election results trickle in as Peter Obi lands surprise win in Lagos,” 2023, in https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2023/02/27/africa/nigeria-election-peter-obi-lagos/index.html
The election coincided with a period of unprecedented hardship for the majority of citizens who have had to bear the skyrocketing cost of living caused by the fuel scarcity nationwide and the importunate decision by the government to redesign the three higher denominations of the national currency, the Naira, resulting in severe difficulties in gaining access to money in Nigeria’s predominantly cash economy. The two incidents partly accounted for the widespread voter apathy during the presidential elections, which was also marred by reports of the brazen rigging and abysmal performance of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Only 25 million (or 28.63 percent) of the 93 million registered voters cast their ballots during the presidential elections; the lowest since 2003 when the country recorded a 69 percent all-time high voter turnout.4Zuhumnan Dapel, “The lowest voters’ turnout in Nigeria’s election history. What happened?”, The Guardian, March 7, 2023, in https://guardian.ng/opinion/the-lowest-voters-turnout-in-nigerias-election-history-what-happened/ The same pattern was repeated during the state elections that were eventually held on March 18, after being postponed by one week.5Several international observers condemned the widespread voter intimidation and violence that marred the elections. See: “The European Union Election Observation Mission to Nigeria 2023 condemns violence leading up to election day,” March 24, 2023, in https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eom-nigeria-2023/european-union-election-observation-mission-nigeria-2023-condemns-violence-leading_en
A Delicate Peace, and the Tough Choices Ahead
Apart from carrying a burdensome political baggage, current economic growth indicators mask the more staggering fact that Nigeria is hemorrhaging badly. The 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index Survey recently published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) indicated that 133 million persons (about 63 percent of the national population) living within the country are multidimensionally poor.6Nigeria- Multidimensional Poverty Index 2022: p. XIV https://www.nigerianstat.gov.ng/pdfuploads/NIGERIA%20MULTIDIMENSIONAL%20POVERTY%20INDEX%20SURVEY%20RESULTS%202022.pdf Another estimate showed that nearly 12 percent of the world’s population of persons living in extreme poverty can be found in Nigeria, suggesting that the country is not just the poverty capital of the world but also one of the most unsafe countries to live in.7https://www.statista.com/statistics/1287840/share-of-global-population-living-in-extreme-poverty-in nigeria/#:~:text=In%202023%2C%20nearly%2012%20percent,reach%20422%20million%20in%202025. In the build-up to the election, the perennial scarcity of gasoline and diesel returned nationwide along with the withdrawal from circulation of the higher denominations of the national currency, the Naira. While it mopped up old high denomination Naira notes nationwide, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), could not print and replace them with the new ones within the short window provided. All of these unpleasant developments compounded the distress and disenchantment among the electorate.
Some of the country’s youngest and well-trained professionals are migrating in droves or bidding their turn to japa, a popular local slang meaning “to leave the country,” and seek greener pastures abroad. They are literally going for broke; taking with them not just their skills and competencies but selling off their hard-earned belongings to start from scratch abroad. Those who remain have either resolved to slug it out politically, retreat into religiosity, or engage in various modes of survival. Corroborating this reality, the presumed winner of the 2023 election, Bola Tinubu, succinctly captured the state of despondency common among the teeming youth:
“Now, to you, the young people of this country, I hear you loud and clear. I understand your pains, your yearnings for good governance, a functional economy, and a safe nation that protects you and your future. I am aware that for many of you, Nigeria has become a place of abiding challenges limiting your ability to see a bright future for yourselves.”8“The Era of a Renewed Hope”— Speech by the President-Elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, March 2023, https://eie.ng/the-era-of-renewed-hope/
The bottom-line is that Nigeria is today sitting on a tinderbox. Sadly, no one can predict with accuracy how long the current political impasse will last for and whether the toxic atmosphere of uneasy and fragile peace it has created would not degenerate further. It would be foolhardy to take the current lull for granted, believing that even this shall pass. The only wedge holding the dike from the possibility of bursting into full-blown violence, or even worse, is the much-awaited ruling of the Supreme Court on the substantive election petitions and counter-petitions filed by the two runner-up parties and by the ruling APC.
Whether the court eventually validates the winner or not, the ghost of the 2023 election could haunt and potentially unsettle Nigeria for many years to come. The big question that all well-meaning Nigerians and friends of Nigeria who desire a better deal and future for the country should ponder is: what will it take to put the proverbial humpy-dumpty back together after another major misstep and great fall? Even if it is not the most desirable option to contemplate, the possibility of an interregnum national conference or similar mediated national political arrangement cannot be foreclosed in order to avert a much larger catastrophe.
What should the international community be doing to support Nigeria?
Nigeria is way too strategically important, complex, and fragile to be left alone at this point in time. The stakes in stabilizing the African giant are much higher now than ever before. This is a most auspicious time for the friends of Nigeria to make deliberate and concerted efforts toward helping to pull the country back from the destructive precipice that the political elites through their zero-sum and reckless bid for power have dragged it to. As long as Nigeria remains overwhelmed by its own multiple divisions and internal contradictions, it will never be able to fuller muster and play the leadership role expected of it in African, and global affairs.
To support Nigeria, her international friends must avoid the temptation of placing their national economic, strategic, and geo-political interests ahead of the political rights and welfare of Nigerians by turning a blind eye to the excesses of the country’s political class and how they deliberately undermine democracy and governance priorities. More attention and support should be geared toward ensuring that the government, in all dealings, treats its citizens with equal respect and dignity, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion. By far the biggest threat that Nigeria faces today is the uncertainty around the possible short and long-term consequences of the just-concluded controversial elections—if any serious progress can be made without tackling the substantive issues thrown up by the process and outcome.9Matthew Page, “Nigeria’s election highlights Anglo-American Missteps,” Chatham House, March 2, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/03/nigerias-election-highlights-anglo-american-missteps A lot needs to be done to enable the country to take on the elephant in the room and weather the storm that lies ahead. The international community should aim to support and strengthen democratic processes and institutions, including active citizen participation, to correct the errors and injustices that occurred during the recent elections and support a process of national healing, reconciliation, and socio-economic recovery.
- 1Centre for Democracy and Development, CDD, ”Votes, Violence and Validity: Our Understanding of Nigeria’s 2023 Sub-National Elections,” March 21, 2023, in https://www.cddwestafrica.org/reports/votes-violence-and-validity-our-understanding-of-nigeria-s-2023-sub-national-elections/
- 2Efetobor Stephanie Effevottu, “Nigerian Youth’s Participation in the 2023 Elections: Defying the Odds and Forging Ahead,” Kujenga Amani (Special Issue: 2023 Nigerian Elections), February 24, 2023, in https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2023/02/24/nigerian-youths-participation-in-the-2023-elections-defying-the-odds-and-forging-ahead/
- 3Stephanie Busari, “Nigerian election results trickle in as Peter Obi lands surprise win in Lagos,” 2023, in https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2023/02/27/africa/nigeria-election-peter-obi-lagos/index.html
- 4Zuhumnan Dapel, “The lowest voters’ turnout in Nigeria’s election history. What happened?”, The Guardian, March 7, 2023, in https://guardian.ng/opinion/the-lowest-voters-turnout-in-nigerias-election-history-what-happened/
- 5Several international observers condemned the widespread voter intimidation and violence that marred the elections. See: “The European Union Election Observation Mission to Nigeria 2023 condemns violence leading up to election day,” March 24, 2023, in https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eom-nigeria-2023/european-union-election-observation-mission-nigeria-2023-condemns-violence-leading_en
- 6Nigeria- Multidimensional Poverty Index 2022: p. XIV https://www.nigerianstat.gov.ng/pdfuploads/NIGERIA%20MULTIDIMENSIONAL%20POVERTY%20INDEX%20SURVEY%20RESULTS%202022.pdf
- 8“The Era of a Renewed Hope”— Speech by the President-Elect of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, March 2023, https://eie.ng/the-era-of-renewed-hope/
- 9Matthew Page, “Nigeria’s election highlights Anglo-American Missteps,” Chatham House, March 2, 2023, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2023/03/nigerias-election-highlights-anglo-american-missteps