Election preview: Nigeria

Nigeria goes the polls tomorrow to elect a president (and vice-president), plus both houses of the National Assembly, plus state governments, all for four-year terms.

Although Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa by a wide margin (and seventh in the world), it gets almost no publicity in Australia. Even Wikipedia’s treatment of the election is cursory. The BBC, however, has a good series of reports, and you can also get some background from my stories on the 2011 and 2015 elections.

Nigeria has a two-party system, so while there are actually 73 candidates running for president, all the attention is on two: the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (broadly centre-left), seeking a second term, and his main opponent, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, of the People’s Democratic Party (broadly centre-right).

The PDP governed the country for 16 years following the restoration of (something like) democracy in 1999, until Buhari surprisingly defeated then-president Goodluck Jonathan four years ago, winning with 54.0% of the vote.

The APC also won majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which are elected on the British pattern by first-past-the-post in single-member districts, although I’m unable to find any voting figures.

Compared to some periods in its history, Nigeria isn’t doing too badly. Economic growth has been strong despite a recent downturn, its institutions are clearly in better shape than those of most of its neighbors, and the government appears to have the upper hand against the fundamentalist insurgency of Boko Haram.

But many Nigerians are still desperately poor, and the political elite is deeply corrupt and out of touch. The fact that the leading presidential candidates are both in their seventies speaks volumes, especially given that 60% of Nigerians are under 30.

The opposition victory last time was an important milestone, confirming the progress being made by democracy in west Africa. But there is clearly a fair way to go before it can be said that the system is genuinely responsive to voters’ needs.

To get an idea of the problem, have a read of Pavel Slabiak’s report in the New Republic on the youngest of the presidential hopefuls, 35-year-old Chike Ukaegbu, a New York tech entrepreneur. Here’s his description of the system he’s up against:

Successful candidates today are often “godfathered” by prior office holders who have amassed great wealth from public funds, bankrolling party and campaign costs in exchange for a continued cut of national treasure once the sponsored candidate assumes office. Political parties resemble businesses, low on ideology or policy objectives, funded top-down by the godfather, the top office holder, or, during campaigns, by the candidate for highest office.

Many countries, however, have dysfunctional political systems; Nigeria’s not only could be worse, but often has been. To see what it does this time, check here for results, probably sometime Sunday morning Australian time.


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