Nigeria is heading into presidential elections this weekend that promise to be the most consequential since the end of military rule in 1999 ushered in 24 years of unbroken elective politics.
More than 87 million people are eligible to vote on Saturday – an electorate bigger than the 14 other countries in West Africa combined. It will also be a ballot marked by the youthfulness of those turning out at the polling stations, a largely frustrated generation, from where demands for political change are yelled the loudest.
These high-risk elections will almost certainly be problematic and, if seen to be poorly managed, they could be catastrophic. The pre-poll campaign has been the most violent in recent history, a reflection of the centrifugal forces straining the unity of the country.
No matter who wins, the challenges will be immense: to find a way to repair a fractious, divided country; to stop the rampant insecurity, reboot the economy, and inject a sense of confidence and hope; to end the snaking visa queues of skilled Nigerians looking to “japa” – slang for emigrate.
Three main candidates are in the running: political “kingmaker” Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC); former vice president Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP); and businessman Peter Obi of the Labour Party – arguably the most interesting entrant in the race.
In the past, Nigeria’s elections have essentially been two-party affairs, with power oscillating between the ideologically indistinguishable APC and PDP. What has mattered has been the religious and ethnic balance at the top of each party’s ticket – a semi-official rotation of power that works to manage sectarian sentiment.
Tinubu is a Yoruba Muslim from the southwest. He has defied tradition by picking a fellow Muslim, a former governor of northeastern Borno State, as his running mate. The candidate of the PDP, Abubakar, is also a Muslim. Moreover, he is also a northern Fulani like Buhari, whose eight years in office have seen a deepening of sectarian tensions, especially between settled farmers and cattle migrating pastoralists.
That Nigeria’s two main parties are helmed by Muslims has irked predominantly southern Christians. Obi, an Igbo from the southeast, has been the main beneficiary of that notion. But he is little known in the north, the country’s largest vote bank, and where Atiku – running for the sixth time – is likely to scoop the most votes.
By law, all candidates need a majority, and at least 25% of the vote in at least 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states to win. A run-off – for the first time ever – is a possibility if this doesn’t happen.
Obi’s Labour Party is tiny; it doesn’t have the organisational reach or experience – the “ground game” – traditionally deemed essential. Nevertheless, one of the anomalies of this election has been a series of polls that has put a relatively youthful Obi ahead of his two more experienced (and far older) rivals.
Conventional wisdom suggests the poll samples have a built-in class bias that advantages him. But his fervent social media army of supporters, known as “Obidients”, say otherwise. They argue they reflect a nationwide appeal that transcends religion and ethnicity. With a high turnout, they believe there will be an upset come polling day – even if it’s not an optimism many seasoned analysts share.
A currency crisis is one immediate problem confronting this election. In December, the government introduced redesigned bank notes, but then crippled the process with an incredibly short exchange deadline. It also failed to print enough of the new bills. The result has been a horrifying cash scarcity – despite two extensions of the deadline – which has affected everyone from white-collar workers to streetside vendors.
The political fallout has also been seismic. Cash plays a critical role in elections – a malign influence the redesign aimed at eliminating. Tinubu, who famously had a bullion van pull up at his home on the eve of the last presidential poll in 2019, sees the cash shortage as engineered by a government cabal out to undermine his campaign – despite being the flagbearer of the ruling APC.
A powerful APC chieftain, Tinubu was instrumental in bringing President Mohamadu Buhari to power in 2015. His campaign slogan in this election has been an unabashed “Emi Lokan” (It’s my turn). Should he feel the need to dispute the ballot result, his fury over the currency crisis may find sympathy in his homebase: the commercial capital, Lagos – a rambunctious city of 28 million people.
The bungled currency reform will also impact the administration of the election – at a time when the INEC election commission is introducing new voter identification technology. The cash scarcity will make it difficult to pay its temporary staff – scattered through the 176,846 polling units – and even the police will struggle to cover the allowances of its officers.
So far, so pretty normal – violence has been an enduring feature of all Nigerian polls since independence. But there is a sense that Nigeria may now have reached a crossroads. This election, more than most, is about the “soul of the country”, Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Centre for democracy and Development, told The New Humanitarian.
Travelling through the hotspots
Late last year, I travelled through Nigeria’s southeast, northwest, and northeast – zones of the country seen as electoral hotspots. They seemed like good starting points to mull the trajectory of a country I’ve been reporting on for much of my career.
Owerri, the capital of southeastern Imo State, was my father’s home – and is where I can claim some roots. It’s also an area that since 2021 has seen repeated attacks on government buildings, police stations, and INEC offices by what are coyly referred to as “unknown gunmen”.
While not always clear who the armed men are, it’s pretty certain much of the violence has been perpetrated by the armed wing of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The group, led by a charismatic but detained Nnamdi Kanu, has resurrected the idea of an independent Biafra – more than 50 years after the end of a civil war in which an estimated one million people died, mostly from disease and starvation.
The five southeastern states of Nigeria are the historical home of Igbo people. IPOB sees Igbo participation in the elections in this territory as tantamount to treason, and is committed to wrecking them – filming the execution of local politicians as a warning.
The separatist cause is a complex one for people in the southeast. Among Igbos, there’s a powerful perception of their post-war marginalisation. But there’s also a sense of an exceptionalism – that despite the devastation of the war, an indefectible people have managed to re-establish themselves (at least in commercial terms) throughout Nigeria.
Both sentiments can lend themselves to the idea of seccession – to leave the “zoo”, as Kanu has christened Nigeria. However, support for separatism is far from uniform. The violence of the movement, its degeneration into thuggery, and the “self-inflicted economic cost of its stay-aways and boycotts” has lost it support, Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group told The New Humanitarian.
Obi is seen by many as the antidote to the politics of seccession. He represents the first real shot Igbo people have had to produce a president, an issue that has long been a sore point in a country fixated on the rotation of ethnic and regional power. Should he not win, and especially if there is a hint of rigging, the response in the southeast will almost certainly be ugly – to IPOB’s benefit.
Jihadists and bandits
Swathes of northern Nigeria have slipped from the government’s grasp and will not vote – something already priced into this election. In the northwest, criminal gangs have run rampant; in the northeast, so-called Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has established a dawla, or caliphate, after more than a decade of war.
The dawla delivers price-controlled goods, sharia law, rudimentary health services – as well as protection for those who settle in its zone of control in the far north of Borno state. The system is paid for by tax collection; those levied on fishermen operating on Lake Chad the most lucrative.
From August 2020 to March 2021, ISWAP reportedly generated revenue worth $39 million – double the amount raised by the state government over roughly the same period. As many as 1.2 million people may live in areas untouched by the government and aid agencies, doling out relief to conflict-affected communities.
The Nigerian authorities don’t fully recognise the competition ISWAP represents for citizens’ “hearts and minds”. But ISWAP does. Its narrative continuously questions the legitimacy and relevance of Nigeria; its propaganda calling on all Muslims throughout the subregion to come and join.
Traders and fishermen shuttling between the two zones acknowledge the freedoms Nigeria has to offer. However, they also appreciated the discipline (tempered by fear) of the dawla, and the ability to make money, unimpeded – they say – by greedy and corrupt officialdom.
The northwest is on a similar bearing, but here the criminal gangs have no ideological rationale for their violence. The failure of the authorities to deal effectively with a decade of banditry has resulted in the majority of rural districts in Zamfara – the state at the centre of the unrest – being under the sway of gangs.
Roughly 100 gangs operate in the northwest, killing, extorting, and kidnapping. What began as unaddressed historical grievances has degenerated into simple business – with gunmen reaching as far as the capital, Abuja, to abduct train passengers. The biggest “kingpins” can field 2,000 men – roughly two battalions of the Nigerian army. The shooting down of an airforce jet in 2021 dramatically underlined how the state has nowhere near a monopoly on violence.
A government deficit
What links Nigeria’s crisis areas is the erosion of the authority and legitimacy of the government.
At a practical level, Nigeria is under-policed – the ratio of police officers to citizens is well below the UN’s recommended average. Those who are at their posts are poorly equipped, badly cared for, unmotivated, and distrusted by the population they are supposed to serve – and the rest of the criminal justice system is equally dysfunctional.
The result has been a necessary privatisation of security, with communities turning to more trusted, traditional vigilante systems to provide protection. But these generally unaccountable groups have historically tended to exacerbate the violence they are supposed to tackle. The inability of the authorities to control them is just further evidence of the state’s incapacity.
Local government – the first rung of administrative responsibility – is also ineffective, hollowed out by corruption and meddling by state governors. Visit a local government headquarters and you’re likely to find the chairperson absent, offices empty. Traditional authorities, which really possess only ceremonial power, can do little to tackle criminality.
By nearly any measure, the state has failed to meet the obligations it has to its citizens. From education to health, services have declined; unemployment is officially 33%; and poverty scars the lives of 133 million of Nigeria’s 220 million people. To put that in perspective, Nigeria earned $394 billion in the last decade of oil extraction.
People in Nigeria tend to succeed in spite of the state – it’s the daily hustle that keeps food on the table and makes the country such a remarkable place. It’s a continental leader in the fintech revolution. Nollywood and Afrobeats are spreading soft power (and pidgin English) around the globe. The entertainment industry alone far outstrips oil in GDP terms, and then there are the world-recognised inventors and innovators.
Every presidential candidate has been talking about the need for economic growth, security sector reform, and repairing the trust between citizen and state. These are big concepts. But the immediate challenge will be how to tackle a $102 billion debt burden whose servicing eats up 83% of all revenue, and when and how an annual $10 billion oil subsidy will be removed – enough to sour any new leader’s political honeymoon.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Largely through the engagement of a new political generation, this election has generated an abundance of energy and hope. If this can be sustained, then no matter who wins this poll, the next one in four years time is only likely to continue that momentum for positive change.
Edited by Andrew Gully.