CFR experts discuss Nigeria’s recent general elections, including the significance of voting delays and polling station attacks, the domestic policy challenges facing the new leader, and what the outcome could mean for political and business relations between the United States and Nigeria.
CAMPBELL: Thank you. Good morning. My name John Campbell, and with me to discuss Nigeria’s recent elections are the Council’s senior fellows, Michelle Gavin and Ebenezer Obadare. You have biographic notes, so I will only remind that Michelle has had a distinguished career working African policy issues, including on the Hill and at the National Security Council, and she served as ambassador to Botswana. Ebenezer is an academic who has published multiple well-received books on Nigeria, especially on the intersection of religion and politics.
Nigeria is the giant of Africa, with a population likely to exceed that of the United States in the coming decades. It has the largest or the second-largest economy in Africa, depending on the metric you use, and it styles itself as a democracy. It is, de facto, the most important African country in an international context. But it is bedeviled by escalating security challenges ranging from jihadist assaults in the north to a nationwide epidemic of kidnapping. Nigerians complain about dysfunctional governance and suffer from massive unemployment, and a likely growth in poverty. With climate change, sea levels are rising, and desertification is spreading.
There is plenty of evidence that most Nigerians think the country is moving in the wrong direction, want profound change, and look to elections to bring it about. There is also a huge brain drain. At the same time, there is extraordinary cultural efflorescence in the arts, literature, and music that is recognized internationally. And Nigeria is home to a dynamic tech sector and Africa’s largest film industry. Yet, Nigeria is largely ignored by Americans, except when there are atrocities, such as the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping, and every four years when there are national elections, such as last Saturday’s.
Ebenezer, could you start us by walking through the leading presidential candidates this year, and who won the elections?
OBADARE: Thank you, Ambassador Campbell. Happy to do that. But before doing that, let me make a couple of preparatory remarks to sort of frame what I’m going to say.
The first one is that, all along, I have been in a minority in my reading of the Nigerian situation, in my predictions as to what might happen with the election, and in my understanding of what took place and what we should expect in the immediate and long-term future.
The second thing is that in talking about Nigeria today, I think it’s important to think historically, and that we avoid seeing the election in isolation but, one, within the general context of Nigerian history and the history of the democratic process since 1999. And then finally, I think it’s also important to pay attention to the concrete material circumstances in which the election was held. I think all those things ought to be taken into consideration in answering this question.
First, the leading candidates. The leading candidates were Peter Obi, Abubakar Atiku, and Bola Tinubu, who has been declared the winner. In terms of their economic vision of the world, they are all broadly similar, which is interesting because Peter Obi is a candidate of the Labour Party, an explicitly socialist party. But that tension has always been there. And I think it will be interesting to explore that tension as Obi emerged as the presidential candidate. But all of them believe in the free market, though with a tinge of patronage.
Who won this election? Let’s talk about the winners in the following order. Tinubu won, but this is one of those victories where you say another victory like that and we’re all done for. He won, but he sacrificed his political fiefdom in Lagos state. I’m not sure that in planning out things when he was trying to run for the presidency, that ever in his wildest imagination would have imagined, you know, giving up Lagos, which he has singlehandedly ruled since 1999, when he became governor of the state.
The other person who won, Obi won. Peter Obi. He won for the following reasons: He has helped us definitively answer the question as to the viability of a third-party candidacy. He has helped broken out—he has broken out the PDP thus, more or less, ending the duopoly that has been in place since 1999. He has injected new life into the political process by harnessing the energy of young people within and outside the country, the Obidients. Civil society won. Civil society, organized primarily around the Obidients, revitalized and energized by—and drawing on the people who mobilized End SARS, Labour or whatever is left of it, the student body, or whatever is left of it.
Another winner? The political process. It faced its most severe test and appears to have survived thus far. But more important, at the senatorial and house representative levels, it’s interesting we’ve not been talking about that because of the focus on the presidency. A new generation of leaders has been quietly onboarded, many of them significantly are women. We can have more of women in the political process, but we are having more than we used to have. Another winner, INEC. INEC, because it prevailed and organized an election under very extreme material circumstances. The BVAS, the mechanism for determining, you know, the authenticity of a voter, it actually worked. It worked, because it worked in 88 percent of cases, according to observers. It failed in 12 percent of cases. I will take that record anytime. If you were to give me that four years from now in Nigeria, I’m going to take it.
CAMPBELL: INEC is the Independent National Electoral Commission. And it is charged with conducting the elections.
OBADARE: Exactly. So it’s important to assess—not to judge INEC in an institutional vacuum, but to see it in the context of its evolution since 1999. It also has to be compared with previous iterations of itself—the second republic version, FEDECO, Federal Electoral Commission of Nigeria; the third republic version, NEC, National Electoral Commission. And to think about how INEC has performed over time, not to judge it on the basis of its performance in one single election.
Now, let’s talk about the losers. The greatest loser from this election is Abubakar Atiku. It’s probably the end of the road for him, at 76. And I don’t think he’s going to run again, though I’m not going to put money on it. Two more losers, and then I’ll give it back to you. The PDP. It lost its status as one of the country’s main political parties since 1999. And the Western media. The Western media, for not doing its own work yet again, for putting—(inaudible)—for a particular candidate ahead of the reality on the ground, for worshiping at the altar of polling, for willfully locking itself in an echo chamber, and for its very perverse obduracy in the face of contrary facts.
Those are the candidates. Those are the winners. Those are the losers.
CAMPBELL: Your assessment then of the elections is really quite positive, looking at the whole trajectory of Nigerian governance since the restoration of civilian governance in 1999.
OBADARE: That’s one way to put it.
CAMPBELL: Now, Michelle, Peter Obi was seen as the candidate of the youth, the hope for the future. There were reports of massive youth registration to vote. Some estimates were as many as 90 million Nigerians actually registered to vote. As Ebenezer has pointed out, Western media sources, many of them, predicted that Obi would win, or at least force a runoff. Yet less than 30 percent of those registered actually voted. And an establishment warhorse, Tinubu, won. What happened?
GAVIN: I actually think that’s the most important question we should be asking right now. What is going on with these turnout numbers? So I think it really is important to understand how hard it is to vote if you’re a Nigerian. It asks a lot of you, right? To go and register to vote as, you know, first-time voters, newly enfranchised voters, which is a huge chunk of the Nigerian population as the demographics skew so young, you have to basically show up in the place where you—or near the place where your polling unit might be assigned to register. Then you have to go back physically again, and show up, to collect your PVC, your permanent voters card. You can’t vote without that card, right? So twice now already you’ve had to perhaps even take a trip, right, to be able to exercise your franchise.
So about 93.5 million Nigerians were registered for this election. That includes about 10 million brand-new voters who went through this exercise. The yield on picking up PVCs was actually incredibly good. Eight-seven-point-two million PVCs collected. That’s the number that they used to define turnout, right? So of the PVCs distributed, how many people actually came with that card to vote? So somehow we got from 87.2 million PVCs collected to 24.9 million people voting. This is really strange. If you’ve made that much effort to be able to go exercise your franchise, the day finally comes to go do it, really? That many people didn’t?
And there are some troubling indications around this election. I actually think that Ebenezer makes a lot of sense in much of his analysis, but I would argue that Nigerian democracy was—and trust, critically—public trust in Nigerian democracy, lost. There were very significant delays in many polling places. And these are correlated with lower than expected turnout. So some people got tired of waiting and turned around, right? There was violence in a number of places. This too is correlated with lower turnout. But there are also really troubling reports in at least two states of observer-verified outright manipulation of results.
We don’t know how many polling units were cancelled. INEC has yet to release this information. If one voter goes—if there’s one overvote in a polling unit, the whole unit gets cancelled. And so it is important to find out how many people’s votes were essentially nullified because of this. But the turnout numbers are quite curious. And they’re not likely to build trust in the electoral process. Going into this election, about 90 percent of Nigerians thought their country was headed in the wrong direction. And about 77 percent of Nigerians were dissatisfied with the way democracy works. This election is not likely to improve those numbers.
Final point that I think people should be aware of in just assessing going forward what does this mean for public trust in Nigeria’s democracy? And this is around what should have been a bright spot. The electoral reforms that Nigeria passed in 2022 were designed to promote public trust and allow for more transparency. And Ebenezer referenced the BVAS, the bimodal voter verification system, something to this effect, that should eliminate, you know, malfeasance at the polling place.
The other important technical fix was something called the IReV, the INEC Results Verification platform. So what was supposed to happen was that at each polling station the results, signed off by all the party representatives, were to be immediately transmitted to the IReV, so there was not a set of steps in between where people could speculate that maybe manipulation could have happened. The IReV worked for the house and senate races. This is really important, especially when we look at the fact that the house and senate races look a little more like you’d expect a change election to look.
It didn’t work for the presidential races. For some reason, in polling units when they would go to transmit these results, the presidential race was not—they would get an error message. INEC has had a very tortured explanation about why presidential results went through a different process, but essentially you didn’t have this transparency. And YIAGA, which is an important civil society organization in Nigeria, did a parallel vote tabulation that suggests things aren’t matching up. So I have a—you know, no particular view on whether or not ultimately the announced results reflected the will of the Nigerian people. But I can’t tell, and that is troubling.
CAMPBELL: It’s interesting that the celebrated Nigerian author, Ngozi Adichie, emphasizes voter suppression. I think you have raised a couple of very important points about how just difficult it is to vote in Nigeria, even when everything goes right. I mean, you’re standing in line often for hours in the hot sun. It’s just hard. The elections have been done. What happens next? Peter Obi, I believe Atiku Abubakar, have both said that they are going to appeal the election results to the courts. They have both called on their supporters to be peaceful and to avoid violence. Ebenezer, could you walk us through how a court challenge will work?
OBADARE: It’s working right now the way it would work. If you have a legitimate grievance, you should approach the court and file those grievances. The expectation is that those—whatever grievance you file, will be dealt with before inauguration, on May 29th. Significantly, though, we should point out, Obi addressed a press conference and he spoke briefly. He had a—he had a—you know, a prepared statement. And he basically said: We won this election and we’re going to show that—we’re going to prove that in court. I say “significantly” because he came to the conference that he organized with a prepared statement.
Abubakar Atiku hasn’t done that. His representatives have been speaking on his behalf. So I don’t know what that means in terms of, you know, body language, whether he might be permitted—he might be prevailed upon to congratulate the president-elect and say let bygones be bygones. I don’t know what that means. But in terms of the challenge, this is the way, you know, the challenge ought to be. And my own expectation is that the legal process will take place, and that we’ll have a determination before May 29th.
CAMPBELL: This puts a heavy burden on the judiciary.
OBADARE: It does.
CAMPBELL: If I recall correctly, every single election, presidential election, has resulted in an appeal to the courts. And in no case, have the courts decided for the plaintiffs. There is widespread criticism in Nigeria about the independence of the judiciary. Is it reasonable to expect that the plaintiffs in this case are going to get a fair hearing? Michelle, do you have any views on this?
GAVIN: I think it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. (Laughs.) I think, you know, there’s—again, if you look at polling data, there isn’t a great deal of trust in Nigerian society in the independence of the judiciary.
CAMPBELL: That’s right. There is not.
GAVIN: And so I think that it’s unlikely that you would—you may get a fair hearing. If a fair hearing were to result in a decision that would be kind of fundamentally threatening to the victorious party here, would that ultimately be the decision? I think that is—you know, Nigerians have reason to question that. There have been a lot of struggles again in this new Electoral Reform Act that was passed, which was a real step forward in sort of creating the institutional structure for Nigerian democracy. And you did, at least in the preelection climate, see the deployment of some of these reforms in a way that’s redounded well for Nigerian democracy.
But what was totally ignored, even in the preelection environment in which you did have some elections happening at the state level that gave kind of a chance to test some of this out, was all of the provisions regarding, for example, transparency around campaign financing and accountability for violations of the electoral laws were largely totally ignored. So this has not been a strong suit in the past.
OBADARE: If I may add a quick emendation to that? That’s absolutely correct. There is very low trust in the judiciary. Actually, there’s very low trust in most Nigerian institutions, including the Nigerian state. But two things—maybe two, on a brighter note. One is that it is true that in the presidential races the decision has been mostly—has been in one direction. But if you look just below that—if you look at senatorial races, if you look at gubernatorial races, races for the National Assembly, the judiciary has been, in a good way, all over the map. So that’s a good thing. And there is no better testimony to that, interestingly, than Mr. Peter Obi himself, who initially lost an election and then went to court and got a good judgement in this favor in court.
CAMPBELL: It’s interesting. The Nigerian author that I have previously referred to, Ngozi Adiche, she was asked what the likelihood was of the judiciary doing the right thing. And her response was: Well, perhaps, after all there may also be unicorns. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Ebenezer, what would you predict as the timeframe? When do you expect the courts to actually rule?
OBADARE: Because inauguration day is May 29th, and everybody knows that, I would—I mean, so this is first week of March. Probably by the last week of April or first week of May we should know, you know, whether the legal challenge has succeeded or not.
CAMPBELL: So within a month?
OBADARE: A month or thereabouts, yes.
CAMPBELL: OK, now, this leads—this leads to what, to me, is an enormously important question. And that is, what is the likelihood of widespread violence when the process is completed? Michelle, do you have a view on this?
GAVIN: I would be—I think I would be a bit surprised were it widespread. But some localized violence potentially in some specific places. But I don’t think—I want to be clear—I don’t think that means that this isn’t damaging, potentially, because of these concerns that I’ve voiced about sort of trust in the process. And I want to be clear that I think the damage goes beyond Nigeria’s borders. As you so aptly set the scene, Nigeria’s an incredibly important country in West Africa and, more broadly, on the continent. And there was a tremendous amount of African attention to what was going on in this election, and youth attention to what was happening with this youth movement of new voters.
And I am concerned that the notion that, well, maybe democracy just doesn’t really work, and this is not the mechanism for effecting political change that we should pursue—I am concerned that that idea gains more currency, not just in Nigeria but elsewhere. And so I don’t think, you know, measuring, well, how much violence might occur is—and I’m not suggesting that you said this. But I do sometimes think in conversations, perhaps at the U.S. government level, when they decided to issue this warm, congratulatory statement to the Nigerian people—I do think that sometimes that the notion is, well, it’s violence or everything is OK. And in the absence of widespread violence, I’m not so sure that everything is OK.
CAMPBELL: Right. So you’re reminding us that the consequences of these elections are really Africa-wide, as opposed to just Nigeria.
GAVIN: And even beyond, right? I mean, if you believe this argument the Biden administration’s been making, that they are—the U.S. is going to push for democratic resurgence in the face of rising authoritarianism and democratic decline, you know, this is—I’m not sure that this is a helpful set of developments, to have an election that gives people reasons to mistrust the system.
CAMPBELL: OK. Ebenezer, you know Lagos well. And of course, the last really major publicized outbreak of violence occurred at the Lekki toll plaza. What’s going to happen in Lagos? Do you think Lagos will remain quiet? It is, after all, where Peter Obi did best. And there is a tradition in Lagos of opposition to the national government, no matter who controls it.
OBADARE: Exactly. So let’s say the court ruling comes out and Obi or Atiku—it’s also going to be interesting whether both of them eventually end up, you know, pursuing their case in the courts. But my sense is that if you are an Obidient, if you voted for Peter Obi, or if you don’t like Tinubu or Atiku, which would be—you know, could be a combination of that—I don’t see how you protest going out in Lagos, because people are going to say, oh, well, you won Lagos. What’s the problem? And I think that’s a wrinkle on this—you know, on this landscape that I think is going to be interesting going forward.
The thing is, Lagos has all these energies converging in it at the same time. You know, a huge Igbo population that is extremely entrepreneurial and that are sticking to all the charms of Lagos. The Pentecostals are there. Many of them abstained. Those who voted went for Obi. But the other thing is, the Obidient will also have to be careful not to be seen to be overplaying their hand, because—
CAMPBELL: And by “Obidients,” you’re talking about the supporters of Peter Obi.
OBADARE: The supporters of Peter Obi, because there’s a very interesting evolution to the movement itself. When it started, it was a pan-Nigerian thing, focused on the credible candidacy of Peter Obi. Over time, and understandably, it’s incorporated an Igbo ethnic element to it, right? So there’s that tension between the Obidient movement as a liberal pan-Nigerian project, and as an ethno-identarian project. You have to be careful you don’t lose the liberals in that—under that tent. So if you were to go in the street and start destroying things simply because you don’t like the ruling of the courts, people are going to quickly say you’re doing that not because you actually like Peter Obi as a liberal, but because you are Igbo who want your way, you know, at all costs.
So I’ll be very surprised—and you have to give credit to Peter Obi in this situation, and Atiku too. Both of them have sued for calm. Peter Obi has refused to play the ethnic game. He’s always told his followers that this is not about ethnicity. This is not about religion. This is about something that is broader than that. So I expect if the ruling does not go in his favor, at the end of the day, he’s been a member of the political class, you know, over the course of his career. So he has to play that game.
CAMPBELL: Yes, no, that’s right. The other place that I would wonder about is Igboland, where Peter Obi carried every state in which the Igbo were a majority, and where there is already a secessionist movement, the strength of which is hard to determine. I would worry about the possibility that secessionism might accelerate, even without the support of Peter Obi.
One final question before we throw this open to our audience. Governance. Michelle, do you think that the elections will have any impact at all on the improvement of governance in Nigeria, which most Nigerians appear to believe is very poor?
GAVIN: Yes. They do, by all indicators. Nigerians are frustrated with the state, right? And for good reason. The security situation is dire for a shocking number of Nigerians, and for different reasons in different parts of the country. The economic situation, exacerbated by this latest currency crisis, has got people struggling on a daily basis, fuel shortages—
GAVIN: Just the drumbeat of corruption in the PDP. So do I think that any of this will change? I sure hope so. I don’t think it’s possible, right—(laughs)—to kind of continue going forward precisely as things are. But I think some of the big reforms that everyone talks about, like reforming on fuel subsidies for example, these are really hard political projects, right?
GAVIN: And if you’ve got a head of state with a fairly shaky mandate, right—what, something like 33 percent—
CAMPBELL: Of those who voted.
GAVIN: Yeah. It’s a hard—it’s a tall order. It’s a tall order, so I think—I certainly hope that any new administration would be trying something new and, you know, Tinubu was at pains on the campaign trail to try and distance himself from the Buhari administration despite, you know, being representatives of the same party, to suggest that it wasn’t going to be just continuity.
But these politically very, very difficult things. And I think his capacity to get things done will depend a little bit, too, on the outcome of the gubernatorial races coming up later this month.
CAMPBELL: Ebenezer, you made the point in your opening remarks that, in effect, the traditional mold of Nigerian politics has been broken, with the number of votes that Peter Obi received. It’s no longer a diarchy. I mean, there were three leading candidates.
Does this breaking open of the political system—is this a basis for hope for the future of governance?
OBADARE: Absolutely. And that’s why I—again, I am a minority in this—if you’re a supporter of Peter Obi, you won. You’ve broken up a duopoly. The game has changed. Now we know that a third-party candidacy is viable. And with the result of the election, we now know what that third-party candidate precisely has to do, right? So that’s number one. There is a road to power now for a third-party candidate. That’s number one. But sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same.
OBADARE: It’s true that that duopoly has been broken, but religion remains salient. One way to look at the way in—to disaggregate this vote is—I mean, Obi won the Christian vote in the Catholic Igbo outland, in the majority Christian southwest, in not-central Nasarawa Plateau; did extremely well in southern Kaduna, which is majority Muslim. So he took the Christian vote, but he lost the Muslim vote. Had he been able to win a couple of the core modern Muslim states, we would be talking about President Peter Obi right now.
CAMPBELL: So, at the end of the day, the election outcome reflected the ethnic and religious divisions in Nigeria—
CAMPBELL: —which have always been there.
OBADARE: Nigeria prevailed, as I predicted from the get-go.
CAMPBELL: (Laughs.) OK.
Now it’s time for our audience to have their say. Could we have the first question, please?
OPERATOR: As a reminder, to ask a question, please click on the raised hand icon on your Zoom window. When you are called on, please accept the unmute now button and proceed with your name, affiliation, and your question. You may also submit a written question via the Q&A icon on your Zoom window at any time. As a reminder, today’s discussion is on the record.
We will take our first question as a written question from Matias Silvani at GoldenTree Asset Management, who asks, “Do you have a sense or view on what Tinubu’s cabinet will look like? When should we expect a cabinet names to be announced?”
CAMPBELL: Good question. Buhari took forever. (Laughs.)
Michelle, do you have any idea?
GAVIN: I was going to say faster than the last—(laughs)—the last time this happened, but I don’t have more insight. I suspect Ebenezer does.
CAMPBELL: Ebenezer, do you?
OBADARE: I kind of have a sense of the kind of people he is going to surround himself with. Excuse me. He’s a businessman at the end of the day. He’s a power broker. He is going to choose people from across the country. Some of that selection is also going to be determined by politics. If he becomes president, he’ll want to win the election. Politicians often choose not with their eye on the present, but with their eye on the future.
But for a moment let’s think what a Tinubu presidency might look like more generally, and in order to give—to understand that, we have to understand how he sees himself in the context of Nigerian history. And the one point I would like to put out there, I want people to keep in mind is this. Tinubu was on the ballot for the first time this year but really has been running since 1999, since—he ended his—he started his tenure as government. He had always—and why is this important? Tinubu wants to do everything in his capacity to succeed because of a fundamental strain in Yoruba history.
The most important political figure in Yoruba history, bar none, is the late Obafemi Awolowo. He is the gold standard. Obasanjo wants to be compared to him. Adeola Akinfala (ph) wanted to be like him. The late M.K.O. Abiola wanted to be like him. Tinubu wants to be like him. He wants Yorubas—not Nigerians—he wants Yorubas to remember him as the person who took the baton and ran with it. So I am saying that because it makes me understand that he is going to do everything in his power to cobble together a competent cabinet and try to run with it. Whether he is going to succeed or not, I think that’s a totally different thing.
CAMPBELL: So Tinubu’s Yoruba ethnic identity paradoxically will drive him to try to put together a government that is successful.
OBADARE: Precisely. Not because he wants to impress Nigerians; because he wants to be spoken of in the same breath as Obafemi Awolowo.
CAMPBELL: In other words, to reinforce the Yoruba.
CAMPBELL: Good. Could we have the next question?
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Patricia Rosenfield.
Q: Thanks to this—excuse me. I hope you can hear me. I have a poor speaker here.
Warmest thanks to the three of you for a fabulous discussion and also for keeping, as John mentioned at the beginning—for having a very different kind of discourse on African countries and the African continent. It really make the CFR outstanding in this way.
I wanted to mention one thing, though, that none of you has mentioned, and that is something that you raised, Professor Obadare, in your excellent PBS interview, at the beginning, and that is that, for the first time, these three candidates were not coming from the military. So we haven’t talked about the military at all, and this is possibly the first time a discussion on Nigerian presidential elections has not talked about the role of the military. So we did talk about violence possibly, but the role of the military—I would like to hear the perspectives of the three of you on what the role of the military might be now and in the future, given this sort of shift to politics not as usual, but politics rather than military leadership.
CAMPBELL: Michelle, do you want to start us off?
GAVIN: That’s a great question and a great observation, and it—for someone who has been, you know, sounding notes of pessimism, a good thing for me to remember. Although I wonder, right, for your Nigerians who don’t really have much lived experience under military rule, how salient that is for them.
I think that—frankly, that declining capacity and stature of the Nigerian military is a really kind of interesting story that intersects with this—with this, you know, moment where we can have a political discussion that doesn’t reference potential military intervention, you know. I guess where I think about this is the incredibly difficult job that the Tinubu administration, any administration would have in trying to address the real rot at the heart of the security services that has allowed for such widespread violence and instability in the country, which also speaks to the police.
So I just don’t see the Nigerian military as the same kind of potent force or threat that I—in the way that I used to think of them.
OBADARE: So I’m of a particular vintage. I grew up early ’90s in Nigeria. I practiced journalism. The military was the single-most worrisome ogre in our lives. It was a monster. I was an underground journalist. I was in Lagos on the day that General Sani Abacha killed more than 400 protesters. I haven’t forgotten that.
It’s a thing of joy for me to be able to wake up and talk about a democratic Nigeria—imperfectly democratic, elections that are characterized with irregularities. But for me, for us to look back—you know, since 1999 up to now, if somebody had told me in 1999: So I’m going to give you this deal. You are going to have this stretch of time where there will be no—officially, there will be no soldiers on the street. There will be no military. It will just be people are running for office. Elections will be characterized by all sorts of irregularities, but you continue to monitor. And I would say: Which of my toes do you want me to give up?
So—and which is why I said earlier that it’s important to think historically and put this particular election in a historical context, and to think not just about where Nigeria is going, but to think more about where Nigeria is coming from and how much we’ve been able to achieve. So we’ve had four presidents. We had Obasanjo, we had Yar’Adua, we had Goodluck Jonathan, we had Buhari—two former military generals, two civilians.
And we’re now at the point where, for the first time, there was no soldier on the ballot, and if you look on, there are no—you know, octogenarian, no nonagenarian army generals willing to take over. I will take that deal any day. It’s a good place to be.
GAVIN: So can I—
CAMPBELL: Let me put my two—
GAVIN: Ebenezer, can I just come in? Because I’m really curious, and you make such a great point. Do you think that that conclusion that you come to and that sense of relief, right, that this is—and wonder that things have come so far on that front? Do you think that could possibly be shared by the millions of first-time voters in this election cycle, who—again, whose lives, right, they just reached the age of enfranchisement in the last few years? So they’ve been living under democratic dispensations—democratic—their whole lives.
OBADARE: Thank you, Michelle. It’s a great question. And this is why—look, to answer this, you have to talk about the sociology of, you know, post-military politics.
One of the things that has happened—which doesn’t really get talked about—is the fact that the military chased away from the country a particular generation of Nigerians. I was a journalist in the early 1990s. There were about twenty, twenty-five of us—political reporters, economic reporters—all of us in our early twenties, all looking forward to a good life, all of us secure in our conviction, one, that we would be immortal; two, that we would never die; like, oh, we’re just going to live forever.
But what happened? Over a five-year period, following the abrogation of the election and a crackdown by the military, I can tell you nearly a hundred percent of everybody in that newsroom currently lives in the West. Why is that important? The important work of cultural transmission, how you hand it off to the next generation, the books you write, the informal conversations you have—like, guys, military rule is bad; no formal military rule is to be entertained. Free, liberal democracies, despite all their problems, are always going to be preferred.
I think we failed to convey that because many of us had to leave the country under duress. So like you, I worry that people see all these things happening and they think, oh, woe is us, the country is going to collapse. We’re in trouble. No. Democracy is a long-term project. A single election is just an event in the life of a country.
When you fail as a coalition, don’t pull out. Understand why you failed, and then reorganize so that you can succeed.
CAMPBELL: If I may put my own two cents in, I was first assigned to Nigeria in 1988 during the period of General Babangida’s dictatorship. At that time, the military was commonly regarded as the last guarantor, the final guarantor of an independent Nigeria, of the Nigerian state.
A repressive regime, at the same time in 1988, three female officers from the embassy then in Lagos, with an embassy car and driver, and no security whatsoever, spent two weeks traveling all over the north for a familiarity exercise. In other words, there was security in the countryside.
Now, of course, the military has failed to restore security in the north, and one might argue in much of the rest of the country, and I think that is a major reason for the decline of the prestige and also the power of the military in the political sphere, to which both of you have referred.
Could we have another question?
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Richard Joseph.
Q: Yes, hello. Thank you very much. Greetings to all of you. This is a wonderful conversation, a lot of discussions taking place.
So let me just come in with a few points here. I’m sorry, I kept losing my connection so I dropped down with you.
All right, first is that Ambassador Campbell, he has made the immortal statement that the Nigerian election in 2007 was an election-like event. That is something that now entered our lexicon about Nigeria. So in that contrast, where is Nigeria—2023 is not yet over?
My second question has to do with Michelle saying that she was curious about the 29 percent—approximately—turnout for this election. My sense is that, given the context of Nigeria, which you all well know—(laughs)—all of the impediments, it’s almost like walking through mud, I would assume, for most of the participants. And I think it has to be judged against those really extremely conditions, especially becoming cashless in a very short space.
My third point is this question, this big word of legitimacy. Ambassador Campbell referred to that op-ed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and toward the end he said some curious things, really calling into question the legitimacy of what had occurred, and also summing up the idea of dictatorship.
Now, at a meeting that I attended just yesterday with Professor Darwin Cue (ph). Professor Adekei Adebajo really cautioned about delegitimizing the Tinubu government, you know, based on—especially considering, you know, other elections—even President Obasanjo—former President Obasanjo issuing the statement he did.
So I think that question about legitimacy—of course, the U.S. government has come down very strongly in recognizing the government.
OK, my last point is about the differential levels of performance that we see even on February 25 at the presidential level and at these other levels. I mean, that’s very interesting, and I think we need to probe it a little bit more in terms of the senatorial and legislative and how it took place.
And then let me just add a last one about Obi, and here I’m thinking not about—just about Obi’s obedience, his movement supposedly, but really about the Obi effect on the Nigerian political system, and the possibility that we could have a more invigorated National Assembly going forward. Thank you. More to follow in our conversations, but thank you.
CAMPBELL: Absolutely, there is much to talk about.
Ebenezer do you want to start us off?
OBADARE: Yeah, I can—I can—I mean, all those are extremely interesting points, but I want to—at the risk of taking on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I read that piece, and I felt that she was being clever by half. Again, look, we can save some of this for a different day, but she did it—actually put or revealed the most interesting thing about herself, which is that from the get-go she declared for Peter Obi. Look, it’s important. So she wasn’t a disinterested participant. She wasn’t just a spectator watching, but she gave the impression in that New York Times piece—a terrible piece, politically illiterate piece—basically saying, oh, this election was basically skewed in favor of a particular candidate. She did not name names. And she basically said President Biden, please come and help us. I thought that was really, really disrespectful to the Nigerian political process.
Again, I am not suggesting that there were no problems with the election, but to ask for this deus ex machina to come and intervene, smooth things over, and not allow the institutional processes in Nigeria to work themselves out, I just thought that was irresponsible on her part.
GAVIN: I won’t comment on that piece, but I will say this. I agree with you that it’s not surprising that turnout is a challenge in Nigeria, but I don’t think that the currency crisis can explain what happened. And if you look at some of the differentials, right, where—for example, where polling stations opened significantly later than they were supposed to, it wasn’t the same throughout the country where there was most election violence. It wasn’t the same throughout the country, and these problems occurred less in APC strongholds.
A currency crisis should affect turnout everywhere, right, but turnout seemed to be particularly suppressed in places that were not traditionally APC strongholds. So I am not—I’m not trying to, you know, sort of intimate shadowy conspiracies; I’m trying to be very blunt about where I think there are important questions that the Nigerian people deserve answers to, particularly around this very strange process for reporting presidential results in the IReV, and some of these discrepancies where the election was just run differently in different parts of the country.
CAMPBELL: You made reference to the currency crisis. The currency crisis occurred when the government, in essence, called in old currency and issued new notes, but in the process, not enough notes were—new notes were produced, leading to massive cash shortages.
By the way, it’s interesting. In one of the news feeds this morning, the courts have essentially not supported the whole process of currency exchange. What that will actually mean, I don’t know.
Do we have another question?
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Robbie Gramer.
Q: Hi, Robbie Gramer, reporter at Foreign Policy magazine. Thanks very much for doing this, guys.
The U.S. State Department put out a statement congratulating Tinubu on his victory already, and it seems like a stark contrast from other elections, like in Kenya where they waited until the courts had litigated the decision to congratulate Ruto. I’m just wondering what you make of that since it seems like what the U.S. government has done is different than what the EU and other independent election observers have done here, and what type of impact that has if we, early on, you know, declare a victor. Does that—I mean, does that alter some of these challenges or what’s going on in the fallout from the initial election results? Thanks.
OBADARE: This is Michelle’s question. (Laughter.)
GAVIN: I do not understand that statement. I don’t understand the timing or the tone. I don’t—you know, this is not an electoral exercise that appears to have inspired confidence in the process among the Nigerian people, so a kind of congratulatory tone seems strange.
The timing, I agree, seemed quite, perhaps, premature, and I don’t understand it. I’m not going to speculate as to why.
Do I think it matters? I do. I think, you know, an important international partner sending signals that this is done and dusted, and we’re moving on—you know, nothing is more important than what Nigerian institutions and the Nigerian people decide. But in terms of atmospherics, it certainly suggests that whatever questions remain, whether or not they get answered isn’t very important to the rest of the world.
CAMPBELL: Ebenezer, do you have anything to add?
OBADARE: Two sentences, maybe. I think that it signals American readiness to support peaceful transition of the power—of power in Nigeria. I think it’s to be welcome.
And I also think that, yes, it’s—many people don’t like it. They would have preferred that the United States waited just a little bit, have no opinion either way. But let’s also be clear that a State Department—you know, from—a statement from the State Department does not in any way affect the process—the judicial process in Nigeria. The United States is not saying, please stop with the arbitration; you know, move on to swearing in. So that’s important to put on the table.
CAMPBELL: That’s an extremely good point.
I am puzzled by the timing of the statement, particularly given the very cautious comments made American election observers.
Do we have another question?
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Tami Hultman.
Q: Sorry, I did not mean to raise my hand, but I’m enjoying the discussion. Thank you very much. (Laughs.)
CAMPBELL: Thank you. (Laughs.)
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Witney Schneidman.
Q: Hello, all. Great conversation.
I want to pick up on a point, Ebenezer, that you made, and that Richard Joseph alluded to, and that’s sort of the difference between what seems to be the credibility of the state-level elections and the federal level. Can you please drill down on that because it really—I just sort of don’t get it? How can we have something that seems to work at one level but it’s just not working at another? Thanks.
OBADARE: Yeah, this is a very—so I would encourage you, afterwards let’s have maybe an email exchange or coffee. But let me just try and say maybe, you know, two sentences because of time. One is that not all elections are created alike in Nigeria, not just in terms of outcome, but in terms of resources, mobilization, logistics, people’s attention, deployment of executive power—all those things affect how elections are conducted and the outcome of the election.
But what you do find on a regular basis is that there’s—you know, there’s more attention towards the presidential election because people understand that that’s where the leverage, you know, of power lies. And that’s what explains, you know—basically, these facts that you find, which, you know, Ambassador Campbell mentioned that the ruling has always been in the same direction in all the court cases. But just below that, you really don’t know how the courts are going to rule. And there have been—there have been many upsets. There have been many affirmations. But all of these, for me, speaks to the liveliness of the process itself, the increasing robustness of the process.
And the way in which—I might be the only who still—who remains hopeful about this because I’m not just looking at this single election. I’m putting this single election in the context of all the elections we’ve been having since 1999. And if you do that, you know, you are going to be more optimistic, you know, than the average person.
CAMPBELL: Michelle, do you have a last word?
GAVIN: No, just to say I’ve actually really enjoyed this discussion, and it’s always a pleasure to hear from two real Nigeria experts who are here. That’s—I am—(inaudible)—of the two Nigeria experts. (Laughs.)
CAMPBELL: Well, I’ll take the prerogative of the chair and have a last word. And that is, one thing that has been very positive is that we have American policymakers and opinion formers focusing on Nigeria, focusing on Africa, and countering the normal—I’m afraid—lack of attention that Americans give to what is such an important part of the world, and one that is directly related to our own wellbeing as Americans.
With that, let me thank our audience for joining today’s virtual meeting, and also let me give my thanks and the thanks of the audience to our two speakers today.
Thank you, and good morning.