Change Comes to Nigeria: The Consequences of the 2023 Election
The 2023 Nigerian election and the vote tallies made clear that many Nigerians want both change and results.
The recent election in Nigeria was supposed to be about change. For months, millions of youth who had long been apathetic to politics enthusiastically flocked, both in social media and in person, to the banner of third-party candidate Peter Obi, who also garnered wide and positive coverage from international media outlets. After more than a decade of careening from one crisis to another under incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, the conventional wisdom was that the most populous country and largest economy in Africa was ready to put its economic malaise and chronic insecurity behind it.
Then, after some foreseeable delays and even more embarrassing snafus with its information technology systems, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) delivered the results: the seventy-year-old former governor of Lagos, Bola Tinubu—the longtime kingmaker of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) who actually campaigned with the Yoruba-language slogan Emi l’okan (“It’s my turn”)—won the presidency with approximately 37 percent of the vote, beating both Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who received 29 percent of the vote, and Obi of the Labour Party (LP), who got 25 percent.
And yet, a closer examination of what transpired shows that, despite the dejection—to say nothing of anger—on the part of many of those wishing for more immediate change, a shift is indeed underway in Nigeria, one that its neighbors on the African continent, as well as its global partners, would do well to be attentive to.
Quite simply, as Phillip van Niekerk noted in one of the most cogent analyses to appear immediately after the results were announced, “the opposition parties committed a strategic blunder by splitting their forces.” A former vice president, the seventy-six-year-old Abubakar is a perennial aspirant for Nigeria’s top job; this was his sixth presidential campaign. In the previous race in 2019, Abubakar, with Obi as his vice-presidential running mate, won seventeen of the country’s thirty-five states plus the Federal Capital Territory. Had the duo not broken up, it is very likely they might have won this year’s contest in a landslide.
Despite the social media-fueled devotion of his youthful following—self-styled “Obidients”—the sixty-one-year-old Obi was handicapped by the limits of the vehicle he adopted for his presidential ambitions: the practically irrelevant LP which, in the current National Assembly, has just one member in the 109-seat Senate and eight in the 360-seat House of Representatives. Had Obi, by some extraordinary feat, managed to win the presidency, he would have struggled mightily to get anything through a legislature dominated by the APC-PDP duopoly since, while the party did better (winning six Senate seats and thirty-six House seats at the time of writing), it still is far from being a major legislative force. However, that scenario was never likely given the mundane realities of political dynamics in the Nigerian federal system: effective national campaigns are built upon having organization (and candidates) at the level of the states and the country’s 774 local government areas (governors in twenty-eight states and state legislators in all thirty-six states and the federal district were to have been chosen in a March 11 vote—now postponed until March 18—that has received very little outside attention; another three states hold gubernatorial votes later this year). The LP did not even field candidates in all the down-ballot races across the country. The hitherto marginal party’s organizational woes were compounded by a money-laundering conviction by a federal high court and the subsequent resignation of the head of its presidential campaign committee, Doyin Okupe, just two months before the vote. This was followed by a subsequent defection of other influential members of the committee, especially a bloc from northeastern states who feuded with Obi’s inner circle.
While there is not denying the energy that the Obidients injected into the campaign, this predominantly urban demographic may represent Nigeria’s aspirations but is itself not representative of a nation where half of the population is still classified as rural. This bias was readily apparent in skewed polling, conducted for the most part via mobile phones or online, that showed Obi with more support than ultimately manifested on the day of the election. Also telling was the story of one self-professed Obidient, profiled by Ruth Maclean, West Africa bureau chief of the New York Times. This particular Obidient who waxed eloquent about her candidate, retweeted his posts, blocked supporters of his rivals, and hectored her friends to register to vote, only to never collect her own Permanent Voter Card (PVC) because, upon encountering long lines, decided that she did not “really like stress.”
The Obidients may have been siloed from many other Nigerians in the same manner that is often inaccurately ascribed to New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael (“I don’t know how Richard Nixon could have won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him”), but both INEC and the international community contributed to the narrative, however unwittingly. The electoral commission did itself no favors in the leadup to the vote by overhyping the untested Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) it introduced to authenticate the new biometric PVCs issued to electors as well as failing to collate and publish results in a timely manner. Some of the machines only arrived in Nigeria just days before the vote. Not surprisingly, they did not perform as promised. The problem, however, is that in the climate of mistrust and suspicion then prevalent, INEC was not given any benefit of the doubt when polls were delayed in opening or results failed to upload for whatever reason. As the preliminary assessment of the joint National Democratic Institute-International Republican Institute election observation mission led by former Malawian President Joyce Banda put it succinctly: “Challenges with the electronic transfer of results and their upload to a public portal in a timely manner, undermined citizen confidence at a crucial moment of the process. Moreover, inadequate communication and lack of transparency by [INEC] about their cause and extent created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process.”
Van Niekerk pointed out that while INEC may have been inept, charges of systemic fraud favoring the incumbent APC would require an almost dogmatic faith in an elaborate conspiracy: “If the APC were clever enough to pull off a vote-switching operation, they surprisingly denied themselves victory in Katsina, Lagos, Osun, Edo, much of the Northwest and Kano, and rewarded Obi with more than 90 percent of the vote in the Southeast.”
Almost without exception, the international media coverage leading up to the vote was focused on Obi’s candidacy and the Obidients’ rallying around it, inadvertently feeding what proved to be a myopic worldview. The Economist—and it was hardly the only publication to fall into the trap—even published a feature article with a headline describing Obi as “the surprise front-runner in Nigeria’s presidential race.” Zainab Usman, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Africa Program who is originally from Nigeria, has lamented that “Twitter became so toxic to many level-headed analysts who just chose to go silent online. Therefore, the prevailing narratives here are incredibly misaligned with on-the-ground realities…But bullying those who don’t align with preferred narratives will make the echo chamber more hollow, loud [and] detached from reality.”
Both the PDP and the LP have denounced the results proclaimed by INEC and, in fact, demanded a rerun of the polls even before the official announcement of those results. The LP has filed a legal challenge and the PDP is expected to follow. Abubakar filed suit to contest his losses in the 2007 and 2019 elections, but his appeals were rejected by Nigeria’s Supreme Court in both cases. Obi is likewise no stranger to the process, albeit with slightly better success than his former running mate: in 2003, he contested the results of the race for the governorship of southeastern Anambra State, which was declared for the candidate of the then-ruling PDP; in 2006, after an epic legal battle, the courts ruled in his favor and he was sworn in. Such a reversal, however, has never occurred in a national race.
In the meantime, Tinubu is expected to take over the presidency on May 29. With several races still to be called, the APC will retain a slightly diminished, but still solid, majority in the Nigerian Senate and will likely have a slim majority in the House of Representatives. Significantly, the new National Assembly is considerably different in terms of parties represented and individual members than the outgoing legislature. At least eight parties will be seated in the new body. While the PDP remains the leading opposition party, Nigeria’s first-past-the-post electoral system has meant that many of the gains by the LP and smaller parties came at its expense: so far, it has lost at least fifteen Senate seats. And while the yearning for change was not enough to totally overturn the Nigerian political system, it created sufficient churn that Senate President Ahmed Lawan will be the only one of the 469 legislators who has served since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999 (in comparison, currently ten of America’s 100 senators and thirty-seven of its 435 representatives have been in Congress since before 2000).