On March 1, the Independent National Electoral Commission [INEC], the election organizing body in Nigeria, announced Bola Tinubu, former Lagos state governor of the ruling All Progressives Congress [APC] party, as the winner of the presidential election conducted on February 25.
But experts and international observers report that the election was flawed. In a preliminary statement issued last week, Dr. Joyce Banda, the former Malawi president who led the international NDI/IRI election observation mission, drew attention to a number of serious irregularities including overcrowding, currency and fuel shortages, the late opening of polling locations, and logistical failures in the tabulation of results.
“Inadequate communication and lack of transparency by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) about their cause and extent created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process,” she said. “The combined effect of these problems disenfranchised Nigerian voters in many areas, although the scope and scale is currently unknown.”
A recent overhaul of the voting system in favor of the radically transparent Bimodal Voter Accreditation System [BVAS] had given voters more confidence in the coming elections’ fairness. BVAS was designed to allow results from polling units to be uploaded transparently to the electoral commission. But the system went offline in many areas on the night of the election.
Tinubu is set to replace incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari in May, official polling results having declared him the winner ahead of former vice president and perennial candidate Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party [PDP], and Peter Obi, the surprise third force and Labour Party candidate, whose outsider campaign had been galvanized by youth support.
Breaking a long-standing trend of political apathy, Nigeria’s youths took a serious interest in the last presidential elections; experts credit the #EndSARS protests in 2020 as the watershed moment for most. The country’s median age is 18, and of the newly registered 10 million voters, more than 7 million are young people. Of the entire 93.5 million voters, 48 million are youths aged 18-34.
Obi’s record of accountability and financial shrewdness, dating from his time as Anambra state governor, resonated with young voters looking to move beyond the country’s two major political parties, APC and PDP, which have ruled the country for the past 24 years amid increasing reports of corruption, the amassing of mysterious wealth and and a declining standard of living for most Nigerians.
Further complications arose when the central bank of Nigeria suddenly intoduced a currency redesign in the weeks before the election. The government said the move was intended to tackle vote buying and inflation, and to keep hostage-takers in check. The CBN ordered people to deposit their old notes, but refused to give out new ones. The inability to obtain cash led to riots in some cities, arson attacks on bank branches and the death of some protestors. And all these difficulties took hold in the context of endemic problems including fuel scarcity, the steeply increasing cost of goods and services, insecurity, and 42% youth unemployment.
Voters queued for hours to exercise their franchise, enduring sweltering sun and rainfall, but countless voters all over Nigeria were never allowed to vote simply because INEC officials arrived at polling units many hours behind schedule. Cases of ballot theft and violent voter intimidation perpetrated by political thugs were also reported.
Since the election, Nigerians have taken to social media to protest against the failure of the voting process and the new technology, which cost 305 billion naira (about $664 million USD) in taxpayer money. Of the 93.4 million eligible voters, only 23.3 million [27%] were reportedly able to vote, marking the lowest voter turnout in Nigeria’s election history. This reported figure flies in the face of the huge turnout reported by many observers on the ground.
First-time voter Akinwale Akindayo had to wait for more than four hours for election officials to arrive. INEC’s failures contributed to the low voter turnout, he says.
“The result of the election is disappointing,” he said, his anger evident. “We voted, but the result of the whole election turned out in other ways. There is surely foul play.”
Olasupo Abideen, global director of Brain Builders Youth Development Initiative, agreed that INEC performed poorly, after having been given two years and an enormous budget to prepare for the elections.
“For citizens who left their house to vote as early as 7am, this is a major turnoff and discouragement,” he said. “This contributed, in no small measure, to the low voter turnout that we witnessed. Aside from that, INEC was not clear with the transfer of results.”
On March 2, Peter Obi told journalists at the country’s capital city of Abuja that he would be seeking redress in court.
“We won the election and we will prove it to Nigerians,” he said. “Please do not despair. I will challenge this rascality for the future of the country. This is not the end but the beginning of the journey for the birth of a new Nigeria.”
There is no precedent for an election rerun in in Nigeria, and these cases might not get a hearing in a country where the executive dictates the conduct of the judiciary. According to Jay Truesdale, CEO of Veracity Worldwide, a London-based global political risk consultancy firm, the challenges to Tinubu’s victory are unlikely to overturn the election. However, they foreshadow the difficulties he will face in bringing the country together to solve Nigeria’s most pressing problems.
“This election could widen existing schisms in Nigeria, including alienating young, Igbo, and Christian Nigerians, which could further exacerbate Tinubu’s ability to address key security and economic challenges,” Truesdale wrote over email. “The youth already have been frustrated and disillusioned with politics, and religious splits could be widened because Tinubu broke the political norm by selecting a fellow Muslim as his running mate.”
Tinubu will also have to seek ways to put an end to the country’s 17-year-high inflation, high unemployment, to curb terrorism and rampaging banditry, to address the farmer-herders crisis and food insecurity, repair the dilapidated health and education sector, and turn around the fortunes of the country’s 133 million multidimensionally poor citizens (a number accounting for 63% of the population).
On social media, Nigeria’s urban youth are registering concern that Tinubu, whose true age remains in question, is not medically fit to run a country on the edge, drawing examples from his numerous gaffes and videos of him being tethered around.
“What we need to do right now is to ensure that our unity is absolutely maintained while the opposition party is seeking redress in the court of law; we should eschew violence and riots,” said Olasupo Abideen.
Others, like Akindayo, who said the country could not afford to have another sick president, cite Tinubu’s record of corruption, drug dealing allegations, and certificate forgery, as well as the fundamental absurdity of his anti-democratic campaign slogan, ‘emi l’okan’ which translates to ‘It’s my turn’. In 1992, the US government accused Tinubu of laundering proceeds from heroin trafficking, but he reached a settlement deal and forfeited $460,000. He has denied all wrongdoing.
Disappointment in the result is propelling some youths to lose interest in politics. “I do not think I will maintaim this current energy till the next election,” said Akinwale, who added that he would start thinking about emigrating if the country continues to deteriorate.
Nigeria’s emigration wave, colloquially called japa, continues to increase. Young citizens are leaving in droves to stake out a chance for a better life in more developed countries, pushing Nigeria to the brink of a brain drain. The health sector has suffered the most, with about fifty doctors leaving the country to work elsewhere every week.
The establishment’s aim is to dim youth participation in politics, according to Victor Daniel, a young man living in Lagos. He says he knew that the recent elections would not be a fairy tale. But, he says, he will strive to keep his morale high.
“I have been trying to rally everybody around, trying to encourage them that you can’t just go. We have to go to court, but if the outcome of the court does not favour us, we cannot just roll over and die, we have to keep fighting and come out with the same vigour in four years’ time,” he said, concluding, I am going to maintain this vigour and resilience as long as I am in the country.”