UP EXPERT OPINION: Nigerian election: no country for old men

Posted on March 16, 2023

In his latest column for the Business Day, Professor Adekeye Adebajo reflects on the outcome of the recent elections in Nigeria and the prospect for Nigeria moving forward. 


Presidential and legislative polls were recently conducted in Nigeria under difficult circumstances: a botched change of currency, a fuel shortage, widespread kidnappings, terrorist attacks and crime provided the backdrop to these elections.
Many thus feared that the polls might not occur despite the assurances of the Independent National Electoral Commission. As Nigeria’s preceding three presidential elections had all been postponed, it was a miracle that this one was actually held on time.
Many have been critical of electoral commission’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. There was nothing in this election that had not been witnessed in the previous six presidential polls since 1999. The main difference was that the touted bimodal voter accreditation system had widespread failure on polling day, resulting in delays in uploading results.
Many counts thus had to be manually entered. The Independent National Electoral Commission’s failure to communicate these problems effectively allowed as yet unsubstantiated claims of collusion between the electoral body and the incumbent All Progressives Congress (APC) to flourish.
In a solid postelection analysis, the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy & Development’s electoral observers noted that just 36.7% of voting stations opened on time. They further recorded some incidents of vote buying and voter intimidation, but these did not appear to be widespread enough to have changed the electoral outcome.   
Control fiefdoms
Nigeria’s politics seem to have returned to the first republic dynamics of the 1960s, with 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 shared a dozen states.
The electoral commission reported that Tinubu won the election with 8.7-million votes (36%), trailed by the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP’s) Abubakar with 6.9-million (29%), and the Labour party’s Obi with 6.1-million (25%). Disgracefully, less than 10% of legislative candidates in Nigeria’s chauvinistic political system were women.
The governing APC appears to have used its 23 governors — who control the political machinery and money in their fiefdoms — effectively, while five of the PDP’s dozen governors opposed their own flag-bearer, Abubakar, for having breached the traditional practice of power rotating between north and south. Tinubu had 12 governors in the north who were able to prevent Atiku sweeping the region. The PDP chieftain was also damaged in the party’s previously impregnable strongholds in the southeast and south by Obi’s sweeping victories in both regions.
Furthermore, Tinubu had much deeper pockets than his rivals, having reportedly amassed 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.
The new bimodal voter accreditation system electoral system 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 to buy their loyalty. In the end though, the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s history — 25.2-million out of 93.4-million voters (27%), down from 35% in 2019 — handed the advantage to machine politicians such as Tinubu rather than Obi’s “people power”.
Nigeria’s challenges are enormous and will require dynamic leadership: widespread insecurity, 138-million poverty-stricken citizens, a $98bn national debt, and 37% unemployment are just part of lackadaisical president Muhammadu Buhari’s difficult legacy.
The septuagenarian Tinubu is similarly frail, often slurring his speech. Nigeria is no country for old men. Could this be the last throw of the dice for contemporaries Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka once dubbed “the wasted generation”? 

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

This article first appeared in The Business Day on 13 March 2023

- Author Professor Adekeye Adebajo

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