Nigeria election: ‘vitally important for continent as a whole’

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa Correspondent Thursday 23 February 2023

Leading figures in the country describe Nigeria’s Presidential election on 25 February as ‘vitally important.’ Babatunde Ajibade, Member of the IBA African Regional Forum Advisory Board and Managing Partner at SPA Ajibade & Co in Lagos, says Nigeria is ‘too large’ to ignore. ‘A positive outcome and continuation of democratic governance in Nigeria will impact positively on the West African sub-region and on the African continent as a whole,’ he says.

None of the candidates will have an easy time leading the country should they win. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and has the most oil, but petrol is in short supply with queues at service stations. The economy is in a mess – with inflation at over 20 per cent – and there are issues with corruption, kidnapping and violence in some areas. Half of Nigeria’s population are 18 or younger and largely poor. Some 40 per cent of the population survives on less than $1.90 a day.

Dianna Games, Chief Executive of Africa @ Work, a consultancy focusing on doing business in Africa, says that people want ‘corruption to go away’. That may be a significant challenge, as rumours swirl of vote buying, while a recent move to change the notes used as part of the naira – Nigeria’s currency – has led to problems. The change was made partly to avoid corruption at the polls, but it has led to a shortage of cash in a country in which 40 per cent of the population don’t use banking services. The result was queuing – and some violence – at automated teller machines as people sought to withdraw cash, as well as at petrol stations for fuel. This forced the government to push back the deadline for the note changes.

The continuation of democratic governance in Nigeria will impact positively on the West African sub-region and on the African continent as a whole

Babatunde Ajibade
IBA African Regional Forum Advisory Board

Ajibade says it’s unlikely that the currency issue will prevent the election going ahead. However, ‘the reaction of the people to the hardship is leading to violent skirmishes, and it is this that may be used as an excuse to disrupt the election,’ he adds. ‘If violence escalated to the extent that an emergency has to be declared it could jeopardise a free and fair election.’

Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann is an associate fellow of the Africa Programme and the Lead Researcher for the Social Norms and Accountable Governance project at policy institute Chatham House. She says ‘democracy has under-delivered on its promise’ to the young electorate in Nigeria. She highlights that since 2015, ‘two recessions have left the country in its most dire state’, and lists double digit inflation, record unemployment, unrelenting insecurity, a heaving debt burden, pervasive corruption, poor quality education and healthcare as issues ‘crippling the futures of Nigeria’s youth and fuelling widespread feelings of hopelessness.’ These are some of the problems voters will have in mind when they go to the polls on 25 February.

Age counts when it comes to Nigerian presidential voting habits and this election sees two aging front runners up against a third somewhat younger hopeful (at 61), Peter Obi. His chances are bolstered by his comparative youthfulness, as 75 per cent of Nigeria’s electorate is under 49 years old. Eleven million newly registered voters are aged between 18 and 34.

Obi’s opponents are Atiku Abubakar, aged 76, of the People’s Democratic Party and Bola Tinubu, aged 70, from the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC). Both are, nevertheless, tipped by some to win: while age is an important factor in the election, religion, ethnicity and geographical origins are also significant. The country is split in respect of religion, with roughly half of the country – the north – being Muslim and those in Nigeria’s south being Christians. Abubakar is a Muslim, for example, while Obi is a Christian from the south-east.

It has been claimed that the south-east part of Nigeria has largely been marginalised, resulting in a simmering discontent. In the late 1960s it was here that the state of Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria and go it alone. The Nigerian government ended the breakaway of Biafra after almost three years of conflict. There remain some in the south-east who still hope for an independent Biafra, however.

Obi is part of the Igbos ethnic group, who made up a large part of the secessionists. He has been firm however in saying that he is standing in the election as a Nigerian, and has never said he is Biafran, according to Adeola Oyinlade, a human rights lawyer based in Lagos who received the IBA Human Rights Lawyer of the Year award in 2018.

‘Despite Obi’s recent celebrity, the most interesting – and underestimated – candidate is Bola Tinubu, who is representing the ruling party,’ says Phillip van Niekerk, a political consultant who works in Africa. Van Niekerk says many have dismissed Tinubu as part of the old order that needs to go. However, Van Niekerk says, ‘he is a canny politician’. In 2014 Tinubu created the APC as an alliance between the six states of the country’s south-west and its north. According to Van Niekerk, this allowed the outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari to rehabilitate his ailing career, having been defeated three times previously.

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