Nigeria’s polarized election

Nigeria protest

First published at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

Nigeria’s elections to the office of President and National Assembly took place on 25 February with 18 parties vying for office and at least four competitive candidates. With all of the votes now tallied, the authorities have declared Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) the winner. Yet with roughly one-third of the vote, that victory was by no means decisive, and his opponents are threatening to challenging the result.

The presidency and seats in the National Assembly are fiercely contested in Nigeria, as whoever controls them also controls the allocation of wealth generated from the export of oil and gas. The president, his ministers, and the National Assembly allocate that wealth through budgets and contracts distributed to friends and cronies, some of which are subcontracted to domestic and foreign companies to implement projects.

The second source of wealth among Nigeria’s political class is the ownership of oil wells, which are firmly in control of a few individuals and their friends. In this situation, the state has become an arena for the struggle over the distribution of wealth — and a very fierce one at that.

Control over state institutions in charge of elections is also a key part of political calculations within Nigeria’s ruling class. Most of the time, the quality of the electoral process is adversely affected by these fights. With the final results being contested and violent protests flaring up around the country, it would appear that this election was no different.

Botched counts and falsification fears

Nigeria’s electoral commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission or INEC, did well in mobilizing citizens to participate in the presidential elections and kept its promise not to postpone the election despite obvious security, economic, and political concerns. It worked towards passing a new electoral law, engaged with civil society to promote political education, and developed decentralized strategies to encourage citizens to collect their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs).

That said, my earlier prediction that the INEC’s performance would perhaps be hampered due to either human error or deliberate sabotage on the part of some staff came to pass, as election materials and equipment were tampered with in some areas.

The administration of the election itself was generally quite poor, as could be seen in the quality of ad-hoc staff who demonstrated little knowledge of the voting process. Voting started late in most places across the country, while no voting at all was held in some areas. In at least one case, ballot papers were missing party logos. Some polling units lacked the appropriate ink for stamping ballot papers and thumb printing, while in many locations, polling booths were inadequate to ensure the secrecy of the voting process.

Other administrative challenges could be seen in the performance of the Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) technology enlisted by the INEC. Some BVAS units were manipulated and failed to accredit voters, while they were not deployed at all to some polling areas. Where they were deployed, staff often lacked sufficient knowledge to operate them. Results were not transmitted to the INEC server, either because manipulated units failed to perform or INEC staff deliberately refused to upload them.

Further complicating matters was the political violence orchestrated by thugs in the run-up to the elections and on election day itself. The Labour Party senatorial candidate in Enugu State was murdered alongside five of his supporters several days prior to the election, and three people lost their lives during clashes between supporters of the APC and the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) in Kano State.

There were deadly insurgent attacks in Gwoza, Borno State, where a petrol station close to INEC offices was hit and citizens were injured. Attacks in Niger State and Kebbi State saw bandits strike on election day, seeking to scare away voters.

The election also saw ballot papers and ballot box snatching, theft of BVAS units in some states like Delta, Katsina, and Anambra, violent disruptions, voter suppression, and vote buying, all of which significantly impacted the overall health of the electoral process.

International observers from ECOWAS, the African Union, the Commonwealth, the EU, the National Democratic Institute, and the National Republic Institute were unanimous in pointing out that deadly violence and criminality prevented the elections in some areas, and also highlighted the poor administration of the election itself and poor communication on the part of the INEC.

Domestic observer groups such as YIAGA Africa, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, and the Nigerian Labour Congress described the elections as shoddy, citing widespread manipulation and intimidation. Representatives of the labour movement, for instance, argued that the people’s will had been subverted and the next government would enjoy weak legitimacy as a result — a fact that will also have implications for any reforms the next president seeks to undertake.

Low turnout and regional consolidation

Turnout for the presidential and National Assembly elections was surprisingly low. Of Nigeria’s 93.4 million registered voters, the INEC claims that roughly 25 million, or about 25.7 percent, participated. This can be explained by a combination of factors. Many citizens were disenfranchised because the manipulated BVAS failed to work. Many other voters, frustrated by the long queues at polling stations, returned home without voting. Votes were not counted at all in locations where voting was violently disrupted or otherwise prevented, and citizens stayed away from the polls in areas where violence was predicted. Moreover, local political grandees largely managed to ensure that vote counts reflected their influence.

These trends could be seen in the electoral outcome. The aforementioned APC won in states in the western part of the country, reflecting the origins of the party’s candidate and his deputy. The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) won in states in eastern Nigeria, where its candidate was from. The Labour Party’s wins were more evenly distributed, while the NNPP only won in Kano State. Nevertheless, on the whole, it appears that most citizens voted according to individual candidates’ personality, ethnicity, and religion.

The presidential election results have slightly changed the political geography of the country. The monolithic north has been fragmented, while the west is gradually becoming monolithic. The east is also consolidating and becoming coherent. The alliance between politicians from the northwestern and southwestern parts of the country and those from the southeast as well as the resurgence of the Labour Party are the cause of this dynamic.

It remains to be seen whether that pattern will be replicated in the National Assembly as well as the elections to governorships and state parliaments scheduled for 11 March. The results of the National Assembly elections will likely produce the same political geography, although this can only be known after the INEC posts the final results.

Progress and protest

According to the official results, president-elect Bola Ahmed Adekunle Tinubu won 8,794,726 votes, Atiku Abubakar of the PDP won 6,984,520, Peter Obi of the Labour Party won 6,101,533, and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the NNPP won 1,496,687. The APC, PDP, and Labour each captured 12 states, while the NNPP won one state.

Nigeria’s constitution stipulates that that for a candidate to become president, he or she must win both a plurality of the national vote as well as at least 25 percent in all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Tinubu’s status as the president-elect will likely be challenged on this point, as his party won only 20.14 percent in the FTC. Aggrieved contestants will also be heading to court to seek redress over perceived electoral illegality and injustices.

The announcement of the results has spurred a number of popular protests. Twelve opposition political parties led by the PDP staged a walk-out from the National Result Collation Centre in Abuja on the grounds that the INEC violated electoral guidelines requiring it to use BVAS for accreditation and transmission of results, instead allowing political parties to engage in manual voting and transmission of results and thus opening the door to forgery and falsified election results.

The walkout created a legitimacy crisis and heightened public distrust of the electoral authorities. Currently, the PDP and Labour are preparing to challenge the APC’s victory and have applied to inspect electoral materials and equipment. They will seek to prove that the INEC violated the Electoral Act by seeking to cancel the presidential elections. They will also raise the issue of the constitutional requirement to win 25 percent in the FCT, given that the APC failed to do so. The APC has defended the INEC’s actions regarding the electoral process and urged its opponents to proceed with their suit.

Since the announcement of the results, various groups of young people and civil society have launched protests against the INEC, some of which have turned violent. Protest slogans include “INEC is biased”, “INEC is corrupt”, “Nigerians are tired of electoral murder”, “Nigerians have lost confidence in INEC”, “Cancel the 2023 general elections now”, or “We stand for justice — we fight for a new Nigeria”. These protests are indications of the frustration of voters and indeed the majority of citizens, who feel betrayed and have had their hopes dashed. There have been national appeals to the protesters and the youth to remain calm and channel their electoral grievances appropriately.

A tough proposition

The outcome of the presidential elections in Nigeria could have an impact on the regional elections scheduled for 11 March, leading to general apathy and depressing voter turnout. On the other hand, voters may turn up to the polling locations to ensure that the old political parties are not allowed to return to power.

Either way, the results of Nigeria’s presidential election reinforce the notion that bourgeois states that organize their economies, politics, and social lives around a single resource like oil will see competition for access grow dangerously competitive. This has broader negative impacts on state institutions as well as the quality of governance.

In addition, class differences rooted in ethnicity and religion aggravate divisions within the country. Furthermore, the lack of autonomy for electoral institutions reduces citizens’ trust in those institutions and the leaders they produce.

However, popular political action on the part of the citizenry has the potential to change the electoral geography in Nigeria. Indeed, an increase in young people’s interest in political affairs in a country with a huge youth population has the potential to change the dynamics and quality of politics as a whole. The new president and Nigeria’s political parties ought to keep this in mind when drafting policies and programmes.

Tinubu, the president-elect, is a 71-year-old politician. He is a trained accountant, and served as the executive governor of Lagos State from 1999 to 2007 and a Senator representing Lagos West in the Third Republic. He is a conservative, market-oriented reformer who has called for the privatization of state enterprises, the removal of subsidies particularly on petroleum products, and the disciplining of labour unions.

Should the Election Tribunal upholds his election, he will be confronted with several dilemmas. To begin with, he must form a cabinet with a balanced mix in a party that is not known for inclusivity. The APC has to include the right number of politicians and technocrats while also taking ethnic and political diversity into account. This will mean building a leadership model with a new patriotic and nationalist orientation.

Second, the president and his party will have to deal with a divided nation. Concrete steps should be taken to heal the wounds created by the election, probably by considering the creation of a national unity government. This will also help the new government deal with the many questions surrounding the election’s legitimacy.

The fourth and perhaps overriding task facing the new president will be dealing with Nigeria’s sluggish economy in a manner that does not hurt the classes that supported him. The party will have to design a strategy to handle the unemployment rate of 33.3 percent, an inflation rate of 21.34 percent, Nigeria’s public debt of roughly 101.91 billion US dollars, a GDP growth rate of only 3 percent, and a multidimensional poverty rate encompassing 63 percent of all Nigerians. He will also have to take on rampant corruption and ongoing difficulties in providing public services.

In all of these tasks, the president and his party will have to strike a balance between hard policy choices and populist measures in an atmosphere where many citizens continue to question his legitimacy. This situation will make it difficult to proceed with serious reform, which in turn will affect the government’s standing in the eyes of the international community.

He may have won the election, but Tinubu must now win over the rest of Nigeria and its international partners.

Dung Pam Sha is Professor of Political Economy and Development Studies at the University of Jos, Nigeria.