Nigeria’s election: same old, same old
Nigeria’s ruling party has seen off a novel third-party threat to win the February presidential election. The election, which saw the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s democratic history, was marred by numerous irregularities. The two main defeated candidates have rejected the results. Many young people who got behind the emerging challenger have been disappointed and don’t see politicians from a much older generation as speaking to them. The winning candidate has a weak mandate and takes over the role amid little trust. He should focus on governing in the interests of all Nigerians, whether they voted for him or not, and ensure people are free to protest and express dissent.
More of the same is on the cards following Nigeria’s 25 February presidential election. While incumbent Muhammadu Buhari steps aside having reached the two-term limit, his replacement comes from the same party. Bola Tinubu, winning candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), is set to be inaugurated on 29 May.
But there are many left unhappy. In Nigeria there’s no run-off ballot if a candidate doesn’t get over half the vote. The winner must merely receive the most votes nationally, along with more than 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) – a hurdle the winner has passed comfortably in every election since democracy was restored. Tinubu takes office having come first, but on only 36.1 per cent of the vote.
Although the top-placed candidate, Tinubu was far from the first choice of Nigerians. The election saw the highest abstention rate in Nigeria’s history, with turnout at only 26.7 per cent. While around 93 million people registered to vote, only around 25 million showed up. This means more people didn’t vote than backed all the candidates combined.
Dissatisfaction was also suggested by an electoral novelty: the emergence for the first time of a credible third-party candidate. When democracy returned in 1999 the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) was the dominant force, winning four presidential elections in a row. In 2015 it lost to the APC, which merged three opposition parties and won every presidential election since. But the 2023 election brought a challenge to the established two-party system as Peter Obi, the Labour Party’s candidate, won 25.4 per cent of the national vote and carried the FCT and Lagos state, Tinubu’s power base. A new force may have emerged in Nigeria’s politics.
Even before the results were announced, opposition parties called for the election to be cancelled and rerun. Following complaints at previous elections, the electoral commission had introduced biometric voter ID and a central database. But on election day there were long delays and queues at polling stations, and some reportedly failed to open, problems that likely contributed to the historically low turnout. There were also alleged discrepancies between manual vote counts and totals uploaded online. International observers criticised logistical challenges and the lack of transparency.
Anger doesn’t appear to be dissipating among the defeated challengers, who continue to claim fraud. PDP supporters have marched in protest and Obi has said he’ll challenge the result. Lack of trust and buy-in of the results will likely continue among the many voters who didn’t back the winning candidate.
In particular there are many young people whose hopes for change have been disappointed. Nigeria is a youthful country – its median age is around 18 – but it’s ruled by a much older generation. Buhari, as he prepares to hand over office, is now aged 80. Tinubu will be 71 years old when he takes up the role. The runner-up, PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, is aged 76. It’s a sign of how big the gulf is that many young Nigerians embraced Obi, a relative youngster of 61.
It’s little wonder so many young Nigerians found the established candidates unappealing. Young people live with high levels of unemployment. Ongoing underfunding of education, one of the drivers of persistent university strikes, leaves them frustrated even before they try to enter the job market. And young people have experienced the sharp end of state violence.
2020 saw a youth-led uprising against a brutal arm of the police force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The widespread sharing of a video of police violence triggered an outpouring of stories of similar experiences, such as killings, torture and blackmail committed by SARS. Urban young people were disproportionately targeted by SARS, and it was they who took to the streets in #EndSARS protests.
The government quickly moved to disband SARS, but replaced it with another unit, Special Weapons and Tactics, that many saw as mere rebranding. Protests continued, and they were met with lethal violence. On 20 October 2020, soldiers opened fire on protesters in what became known as the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre. At least 11 people were killed. The government claimed there had been no fatalities, and to this day no one has been held to account for the killings. Many protesters meanwhile remain in detention.
The election also came in the context of a global economic downturn. But in Nigeria, anger at rising prices was exacerbated by a specific government action: the introduction of new banknotes and imposition of strict limits on cash withdrawals. The government said the measures were intended to increase the take-up of digital banking and curb criminality and corruption, including vote-buying. But many people rely on cash to buy the basics and many small traders depend on such transactions. New notes were scarce. The result was unrest.
These are the circumstances in which a charismatic candidate running as an outsider could gather support. Obi sought to compensate for his lack of the political machinery and patronage networks enjoyed by the two main parties through a grassroots campaign that made heavy use of social media. There were signs Obi was attracting youth support that cut across the usual religious and ethnic loyalties and divides that continue to characterise Nigeria’s politics. He promised the government would apologise to victims of police brutality.
In truth, Obi was less of an outsider than he might have wanted to appear. He’s led a successful career in banking, served as governor of Anambra State and has represented two other parties, including the PDP, whose vice-presidential candidate he stood as in 2019.
It’s perhaps a sign of how jaded the young people who mobilised as part of Obi’s campaign are that they were prepared to embrace anyone who seemed slightly different.
There are positives. Nigeria spent decades under military rule – a form of governance making something of a comeback in multiple African countries, among them Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan – and it once seemed unimaginable that democracy might take hold. But a generation has grown up experiencing regular elections and civilian rule. Once again a Nigerian president has respected the constitutional term limit and stood down, while for the first time in 2023, none of the main candidates to succeed him had served in the military. The danger of political violence has so far been largely averted.
But Tinubu inherits a situation where trust is evidently low, and where alongside economic strife people live with other huge problems such as conflict, crime and insecurity. Many feel politicians don’t speak for them.
His profile hardly raises hopes he can speak to the desire for change many young people have articulated. Tinubu has had a long career as a skilled political operator and perhaps uncoincidentally is also a very wealthy man dogged by corruption allegations. He ran on a slogan that reeked of entitlement: ‘it’s my turn’.
The election saw the highest abstention rate in Nigeria’s history. More people didn’t vote than backed all the candidates combined.
But Tinubu needs to accept he has a weak mandate, having triumphed over a divided opposition on a very low turnout. He should govern not just for those who voted for him, but the voters – more than half, over 13 million – who didn’t, and the even larger numbers who for whatever reason stayed at home. He has to reach beyond the identity groups that most strongly backed him.
This means making space in political structures for young people and the others excluded – notably women, once again largely invisible in the campaign and grossly underrepresented among the candidates for the legislative elections that were held concurrently.
It also means addressing the irregularities that plagued this election and committing to respect key freedoms – including the media freedoms that came under threat in a campaign where numerous journalists where harassed, detained and attacked.
Many people, particularly young people, have made clear they’re unhappy and want to see renewal. That desire hasn’t gone away and future protests are a certainty. Their right to protest – including of those unhappy with the conduct of the election – must be upheld.
The government should show it respects protest rights by ensuring all who violate them are held accountable – all the way up to the people responsible for the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre. If this doesn’t happen, Tinubu’s critics will feel justified in seeing him as just more of the same.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new administration should commit to an independent inquiry into reports of electoral irregularities and ensure its recommendations are acted on.
The government should open up spaces and mechanisms for those currently largely excluded from politics – particularly women and young people – to participate, express their views and seek representation.
The government should pledge to deliver accountability for all violations of fundamental freedoms – including in relation to the 2020 Lekki Toll Gate Massacre.
Cover photo by Benson Ibeabuchi/Getty Images