Adekeye Adebajo | Reflections on Nigerian elections
Presidential and legislative polls were recently conducted in Nigeria under very difficult circumstances. A botched change of currency that prevented depositors withdrawing their funds demonstrated yet again the rank incompetence and callous disregard of the ruling elite for the suffering of the masses. A fuel shortage made it difficult for commuters to move freely.
Widespread kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and crime have continued, resulting in at least 10,000 deaths last year. Many thus feared that the polls might never take place despite the assurances of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and its arrogant Oxbridge-educated chair, Mahmood Yakubu, who had obstinately refused to apologise to Nigerians for the last-minute postponement of the 2019 election. Nigeria’s preceding three elections in 2011, 2015, and 2019 had all been postponed, so it was a miracle that this one was actually held on time.
Many have been critical of the INEC’s performance as an impartial referee. However, the clear flaws in its electoral process seem to be due more to complacent incompetence than systematic rigging. Any close observer of Nigeria knows that there was nothing in this election that had not been witnessed in the previous six presidential polls since 1999.
RETURN OF THE THREE KINGS
The main difference was that Yakubu had overpromised and underdelivered, placing too much faith in the much-touted Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) that he consistently reassured Nigerians would work at all 176,734 polling stations. The system, however, experienced widespread failure on polling day, resulting in delays in uploading results and many counts having to be manually entered. Yakubu’s failure to communicate timeously and transparently opened the floodgates to still unsubstantiated claims of collusion between the INEC and the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
In a solid post-election analysis, the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development’s (CDD) electoral observers noted that just 36.7 per cent of voting stations opened on time. CDD observers further recorded some incidents of vote-buying and voter intimidation. These did not, however, appear widespread enough to have changed the electoral outcome.
Nigeria’s politics appear to have returned to the First Republic (1960-1966) dynamics of three strong ethnic blocs. Bola Tinubu mostly held sway in his Yoruba Southwest stronghold; Atiku Abubakar in the Hausa-Fulani North; and Peter Obi in the Igbo Southeast. All three candidates each shared a dozen states. The NEC reported that the APC’s Tinubu had won the election with 8.7 million votes (36 per cent); trailed by the PDP’s Abubakar with 6.9 million (29 per cent); and the Labour party’s Obi, with 6.1 million (25 per cent). Disgracefully, less than 10 per cent of legislative candidates in Nigeria‘s chauvinistic political system were women.
The ruling APC appears to have used its 23 governors – who control the political machinery and money in their fiefdoms – effectively, while five of the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) dozen governors opposed their own flagbearer, Abubakar, for having breached the traditional practice of power rotating between North and South. Tinubu had a dozen governors in the north who were able to prevent Atiku sweeping the region. The PDP chieftain was also damaged in previously impregnable strongholds in the Southeast and South South by Obi’s sweeping victories in both regions.
Further, Tinubu had much deeper pockets than his rivals, having played the long game by reportedly amassing a war-chest from his control of the Southwest for two decades. Obi had no governors or structures across the 36 states but ran an energetic social media campaign fuelled by the fervour of Nigeria’s southern youths. He did well to take Tinubu’s home-base of Lagos. Atiku also won Osun in Tinubu’s southwestern heartland.
Despite many complaints and many glitches, the new BVAS electoral system actually made it more difficult to engage in the direct rigging of the past. Unscrupulous actors had to find other strategies such as voter suppression and intimidation and providing gifts to voters in order to buy their loyalty. Tinubu thus appears to have had the stronger political machine and deployed it as ruthlessly as the notorious Daley family wielded their political machine in Chicago for decades.
OBEDIENT ECHO CHAMBER
Even though the Labour Party’s Peter Obi would have been the best candidate, he failed to impress in the televised debate I watched. I did not feel that he had the answers to Nigeria’s pressing security and socio-economic challenges or that he was radically different from the mainstream politicians he was competing against, having left the PDP following the loss of presidential primaries to Atiku 10 months ago. The strongest argument for Obi’s candidature, for me, was the need for national restitution: the chance for Nigeria to show that the civil war of five decades ago had ended and that a member of the only major geo-political zone not to have held executive office should be given an opportunity to rule.
In the end, however, the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s history – 25.2 million out of 93.4 million voters (27 per cent), down from 35 per cent in 2019 – handed the advantage to machine politicians like Tinubu rather than Obi’s “people power”. Many “Obedients” represented a somewhat intolerant social media echo chamber, accepting his landslide victories in the southeast and shock win in Lagos while questioning the fairness of polls in areas in which he lost. Obi won in Nasarawa, Plateau, Delta, and Edo, which had incumbent APC and PDP governors.
WESTERN ATTEMPTS TO DELEGITIMISE ELECTION
Many Western media – and some observer groups – focused on the most negative aspects of the polls. They seemed outraged by the outcome of the presidential election, and some appeared to be trying to delegitimise Tinubu’s victory. A Financial Times editorial seemed particularly irate, berating Nigeria for allegedly failing to set an example for West Africa, and virtually calling for the annulment of the polls, citing the examples in Kenya (2017) and Malawi (2020) without seeming to take into account the very different circumstances in all three cases.
WHITHER PAX NIGERIANA?
Historical perspective is, however, always important. Nigeria has conducted seven elections in the last 24 years and managed to avoid a return to military rule. It is important to remember that its first two democratic experiments lasted just five and four years, respectively, while military brass hats have ruled the country for 29 years.
The stakes are thus extremely high. With rumours of efforts to derail the electoral process and impose a military regime, these are not theoretical concerns that we in Africa can take lightly. As the “Men on Horseback” – the military – have returned to Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Chad, it is important that Nigeria set a good democratic example by keeping the soldiers in their barracks. As is often remarked: as Nigeria goes, so goes Africa.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Nigeria’s challenges are enormous and will clearly require dynamic leadership. Terrorism ,farmer-herder clashes, 138 million poverty-stricken citizens, a $98 billion national debt, and 37 per cent unemployment are just part of lackadaisical president Muhammadu Buhari’s difficult legacy,despite his building some road and rail infrastructure projects.
The septuagenarian Tinubu is similarly frail, often slurring his speech. Nigeria is clearly no country for old men. But it seems like Africa’s Gulliver is stuck with yet another Lilliputian member of the geriatric “old guard” whose entitled slogan is that it is his turn to rule. Could this be the last throw of the dice for contemporaries that Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka once dubbed “The Wasted Generation”?
- Professor Adekeye Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the advancement of scholarship in South Africa. Send feedback to email@example.com.