What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s General Elections?
What is the situation in Nigeria as the country gears up to vote?
Nigeria has fared badly over the course of the Muhammadu Buhari presidency. When Buhari came to power in 2015, expectations were high that he would deliver on campaign promises to rein in corruption, reduce insecurity by curbing the activities of Islamist Boko Haram insurgents, boost and diversify the economy by reducing dependency on oil revenue, and renew the hopes of young Nigerians through a focus on job creation. The evidence supports Nigerians’ belief that the administration has failed. For example: the Boko Haram insurgency is as deadly as ever. According to various estimates, more than 2700 people were killed by the group and other terrorist groups in the last quarter of 2022 alone, a 16 percent rise from the previous quarter. Boko Haram terror is an aspect of a broader spike in insecurity, with more than three-fourths of Nigerians agreeing that the country is either “somewhat unsafe” or “very unsafe” to live in. With the unemployment rate projected by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) to hit a staggering 37 percent in 2023, it is hardly surprising that seven out of ten Nigerians would leave the country if the opportunity were to arise. The heightened interest in this weekend’s election, illustrated by several large rallies across the country, is in great part an outcome of a desire to see these problems tackled by an administration with a fresh set of ideas.
Who are the main candidates to watch?
Atiku Abubakar, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) standard bearer. Abubakar, seventy-six, is a serial runner, having repeatedly aimed for the country’s highest office since he concluded two terms of office as Vice President (to Olusegun Obasanjo) in 2007.
Bola Tinubu of the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC). Tinubu, seventy, is a former Governor of Lagos State (1999- 2007) and arguably the most influential Nigerian politician of the past two decades.
Both Tinubu and Abubakar are renowned for their deep pockets and a wide network of political loyalists across the length and breadth of the country. Each is conscious of this being the last realistic opportunity to win the Nigerian presidency.
Peter Obi of the Labour Party of Nigeria (LP). Businessman and former Anambra State Governor Peter Obi, sixty-one, is the dark horse candidate. Having defected from the PDP at the last minute as soon as it became clear that Abubakar had sealed a deal that would help him prevail over the field in the party primaries, Obi has energized a cross section of young Nigerians at home and in the diaspora who see him as a credible alternative to the established order. Until Obi, no third-party candidate has commanded this level of interest or popularity since Nigeria returned to civil rule in 1999.
Is there a risk of political violence surging around the elections and when results are announced?
There is a medium to high level risk of violence around the elections. Frustration at the Central Bank of Nigeria’s botched currency-swap policy and fuel shortage across the country will likely carry over into Election Day. There are daily reports in the media of angry protesters blocking major highways, damaging bank Automated Teller Machines, and burning banks. Urban centers with high concentrations of young people remain potential flash points. Recurrence of a pattern of low-level violence similar to that seen in recent general elections is a high probability. This includes stealing of ballot boxes, targeted disruption of voting, and random attacks on polling centers by miscreants aiming to suppress the vote for particular candidates.
There are also ethnic tensions to watch. In the Igbo-dominated southeastern region where daily violence has ramped up in recent weeks, and where a faction of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) has called for a boycott of the election, there is a high risk of violence on Election Day.
Last week, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced that 240 polling centers nationwide will be inactive “mainly for security reasons.”
Whether or not violence occurs in the aftermath of the announcement of results will depend on the perception of the poll’s overall fairness and integrity. Violence will most likely ensue if it is perceived that the election was rigged in favor of a particular candidate. As Abubakar’s claim that the 2019 election was a “sham” demonstrates, attacks on the notion of a “free and fair” election by various candidates may emerge this cycle as well.
Why are these elections significant for the region and continent?
Experts on elections and students of the democratic process in Africa are closely monitoring the election. Successful conduct will mark another important milestone for Africa’s most populous country as it continues to put decades of military rule behind it. Since the return to democracy in 1999, this will be the first general election in the country with no former army general on the ballot. The election will also be a powerful affirmation for the democratic process in a West-African sub-region where a recent spate of coups d’état has heightened fears about a return to the era of military rule. Nigeria plays a stabilizing role within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) in the sub-region and across the continent respectively.
Reina Patel contributed to research for this article.