Election preview: Nigeria

What will probably be this year’s second-largest election (after Pakistan) takes place on Saturday, when Nigerians go to the polls to elect a new president and members of both houses of the legislature (there is full separation of powers, on the American model). Current president Muhammadu Buhari, in office for eight years, is retiring due to term limits.

Nigeria returned to something like democracy in 1999, and so far it has held up reasonably well. Buhari’s victory in 2015, when he beat incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, was an important milestone. But it hasn’t been an easy road; the last election, four years ago, was postponed for a week at the last minute due to logistical problems, resulting in turnout of only 35.7%. Buhari won a second term with 55.6% of the vote against 41.2% for his main challenger, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar.

Abubakar, representing the People’s Democratic Party (broadly centre-right), is running again this time, although he’s 76. Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (broadly centre-left), has nominated Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos state. In the past, the two major parties have been the only ones to watch: last time there were another 76 candidates – nomination requirements are evidently very lax – but none of them got more than half a per cent of the vote.

Not so this time. A third candidate, the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, has been attracting significant support, partly based on the fact that at 61 he is noticeably younger than the two major party nominees, and is also, unlike them, from the country’s south-east (Tinubu is from the south-west while Abubakar, like Buhari, is a northerner). Obi was Abubakar’s running-mate in 2019, but defected from the PDP last year.

An appeal to Nigerian youth makes sense, since, as in most poor countries, young people make up a very large and mostly neglected part of the electorate. As Steve Onyeiwu explains, in a sobering assessment of the country’s problems:

Nigerian youths are increasingly becoming vociferous in the country’s socio-economic and political affairs. This means that whoever becomes president must pursue youth-friendly policies and assuage the pent-up anger produced by them. The incoming president must therefore get his economic policies right or risk an implosion reminiscent of the Arab Spring.

The first challenge is to conduct a fair and functional election. Security is a constant problem in Nigeria, and the electoral commission’s spokesman sounded less than confident last month about the prospect of avoiding another postponement. There is also some chance of a second round being required, which would be held three weeks later: the first-round winner doesn’t need to have a majority, but they do need to satisfy a breadth requirement by winning at least 25% of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 36 states (almost a certainty with only two serious candidates, but a bit less so with three).

As I remarked after the 2011 election, “The enthno-religious division is never far away in Nigeria.” The APC this year has broken the unwritten rule that tickets should have religious balance (Tinubu and his running-mate are both Muslims), while the PDP has attracted criticism for running another northerner, despite Buhari’s two terms of office.

With some 225 million people there’s no obvious reason why Nigeria needs to be a single country; if north, south-east and south-west were all to go their own way it’s quite possible that they would be better off. But if the task is to keep them together peacefully, then democracy, even in the imperfect version of the last 24 years, is the best bet.


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