Nigeria’s elections will determine the course of its democracy

Electoral officials gather, standing and sitting in army green uniforms.
Electoral officials gather after the closure of their polls in Abuja, Nigeria, on February 25, 2023. | Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images

Africa’s largest democracy has voted — what’s at stake for its people and the continent?

Nigeria’s presidential elections on Saturday have yet to be called, but they could prove to be a deeply consequential contest in Africa’s largest democracy. Eighteen candidates are vying to replace current President Muhammadu Buhari, the nation’s 80-year-old leader who initially came to power in a 1983 coup and was then elected in 2015.

On Monday, Nigerian election officials announced that third-party candidate Peter Obi had won the state of Lagos, home to Nigeria’s biggest city. But it’s still far too early to tell if that major upset signals anything significant; the ruling party’s candidate, Bola Tinubu, has won five of seven other states announced as of Monday morning, and many more states remain to be called.

Buhari is leaving the presidency after two terms, and his successor will inherit a nation struggling with immense inequality as well as internal security problems and an ongoing cash crisis. Though Nigeria has significant natural resources and has been experiencing a boom in entrepreneurship for the past decade, young professionals are leaving the country in droves for better opportunities in the UK, Europe, the US, and Canada, according to CNN. Organized crime, terrorist violence, ethnic and cultural tensions, corruption, nepotism, and state violence are all critical issues for the next leader to address.

Saturday’s elections also included races for the legislative body and state leadership; all of the National Assembly’s 109 Senate seats and 360 seats in the House of Representatives are on the ballot, as are 18 of Nigeria’s 36 governorships. Though the two traditional parties, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), are expected to continue their dominance in the National Assembly, according to a January report from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the same won’t necessarily hold true for the presidency.

Two establishment candidates, Bola Tinubu of the APC and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP, are frontrunners. They’ve both been in politics for a long time — Abubakar is running in his sixth presidential contest — and are in their 70s. Obi, a businessman and former governor of Anambra state in the southeast region, is the Labour Party candidate, who’s worked to mobilize the youth vote and dominate the social media landscape with his followers, the “OBIdients.”

Despite his wealth and government experience, Obi does represent a break from entrenched political networks and has a reputation for competence and transparency. “He hasn’t been part of the ‘godfather’ political stereotype that we see with Bola Tinubu or Atiku Abubakar,” Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Vox in an interview.

The results of the vote could take several days — while there was hope that a new electronic results system would speed things up, voting delays and some violence this weekend, reported issues with uploading results, and other disturbances have reportedly slowed the tally.

Should no candidate win a majority of the vote in this round, the presidency will proceed to a runoff. Whoever wins the 2023 contest will have his work cut out for him preserving Nigeria’s young democracy, given democratic backsliding throughout the continent and the multiple problems facing Nigerians.

A successful election in Nigeria “opens the door for democratic self-correction,” Siegle said, allowing for a government responsive to people’s needs and capable of growth and flexibility in the face of great change across the nation, the continent, and the world. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “It would make a huge statement for Nigeria and for Africa; with Nigeria being Africa’s largest population and largest economy, that’s a big deal.”

Nigeria’s present, overlapping crises have voters driving for change

Nigeria’s stature as Africa’s largest democracy and its largest economy hasn’t protected the country from serious economic, security, and political problems.

In February, the central bank recalled old banknotes of 1,000, 500, and 200 naira, making them worthless. The replacement notes haven’t been widely disbursed, creating a cash shortage in a country where millions of people are dependent on cash. That’s in addition to global inflation and a cost of living crisis that has forced doctors and other young professionals to leave the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

The government’s explanations for the currency change include attempts to cut down on vote-buying, counterfeiting, and cash-hoarding; whatever the reason, those efforts have concluded in frustration, anger, and protest on the part of ordinary Nigerians who can no longer pay their bills. Buhari has brought the old 200 naira notes back into circulation to help ease the crisis but has otherwise backed up the central bank’s decision.

The nation’s security crisis is also top of mind for Nigerian voters, although what that crisis looks like, exactly, differs from region to region in this large, diverse nation. In the northeast, Islamist terrorist violence continues despite the claim by the Buhari government that Boko Haram has been defeated. Though by some important measures, northeastern Borno state is safer than it was in 2015 when Buhari won the presidency, “there’s still a lot of violence, an incredible amount of disruption, and humanitarian catastrophes” in the country, Brandon Kendhammer, associate professor of political science and director of international development studies at Ohio University, told Vox.

While groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State Western African Province (ISWAP) “are less militarily able to disrupt lives than they were five or six years ago, that’s the good news,” Kendhammer said. “The bad news is that lots of other kinds of violence have largely taken the place of the violence in northeastern Nigeria. Today, if you’re ranking immediate security concerns in Nigeria, ISWAP and Boko Haram are third or fourth on the list.”

Chris Kwaja, the US Institute for Peace’s interim country manager in Nigeria and a senior lecturer at Modibbo Adama University’s Centre for Peace and Security Studies, told Vox that there are a dizzying number of security problems related in part to the inability of the government to incorporate people from a variety of backgrounds and social statuses.

”The emergence of what we call bandits in the north-central and northwestern part of the country, communal conflicts as well as conflicts over access to and management of natural resources, as we see in the context of farmer-herder conflicts in part of the northeast and part of the northwestern part of the country,” are a major driver of insecurity, he said. Farmers and herders often compete over resources limited by encroaching urbanization and climate change, Kendhammer told Vox; though that conflict is layered upon longer-running ethnic and cultural tensions, the proliferation of small arms in the past decade has made the conflict more deadly.

Separatist groups, and militant groups in the south competing with the government for access to and distribution of crude oil, also create instability. According to Kwaja, “for many citizens, the state has not been able to effectively contain these drivers and sources of insecurity,” driving disillusionment and apathy toward the existing structures.

“The expectation is that the country should be able to put itself together in a way that positions it to be able to meet some of the basic expectations of citizens around inclusion, around addressing poverty, around addressing inequality as well as unemployment and other basic functions that democracy should perform,” Kwaja said.

The future of Nigeria’s democracy could hang in the balance

The country’s political system — somewhat sclerotic, with entrenched corruption — also depends on the process of the election and the capacity that the winner has for continuing democratic reforms. The country only became a democracy in 1999, after decades of colonialism and then military rule, and only began to have a viable, competitive multiparty state starting two election cycles ago, Siegle told Vox.

“There are choices here; it will matter who gets elected,” he said. “In a lot of African elections, people don’t have a choice.”

Kwaja and Siegle both pointed to nepotism and corruption as key weaknesses in the Nigerian government structure. “People see access to public office as an opportunity to amass wealth, rather than working for the people,” Kwaja told Vox. And politicians tend to rely on seniority and entitlement, rather than competence and service, as justification for them to hold office. “That sense that there are a certain number of people who, by virtue of the power that they wield, the resources that they have, the political networks that they control, are putatively entitled to [positions of power] really drive a lot of the way that Nigerian politics operate,” Kendhammer said.

Nigeria has made a number of critical election reforms over the years, and civil society and media have a critical role in demanding change and pushing for transparency, Siegle said. The tabulation of votes at polling stations before they’re handed into the federal authority in the capital Abuja, and oversight from authorities like the African Union are both important ways to manage fraud and threats to the electoral system. “Each election gets a little bit better; they learn from the experiences of the last time,” Siegle said.

The election and its outcome are both critical for Nigeria’s democracy and for Africa overall, Kwaja said. “The international attention that is given to the situation in Nigeria is borne out of this very strong conviction that, if we get it right when it comes to democratic transition in Nigeria, the rest of Africa will also get it right.”

Update, February 27, 12:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on February 25 and has been updated to include early results from the elections.

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