Nigerians went to the polls in the last week of February to elect a new President. After a few days of uncertainty, the Nigerian Independent National Election Commission (INEC) finally announced that the winner was the 70-year-old Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC). The delay in announcing the result happened despite the election commission using biometric data and sending election results electronically rather than manually. Tinubu got 37 per cent of the votes cast. Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) came second with 29 per cent and Peter Obi of the Labour Party came third with 25 per cent.
Under Nigeria’s electoral laws, the President-elect has to win in the majority of the 36 States in the Nigerian Federation and get at least 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of the States. The INEC stated that Tinubu had fulfilled these conditions.
For the first time since gaining Independence in 1960, the country witnessed a three-cornered fight for the top job. In all, there were 18 candidates in the fray. As is usual, it was a raucous campaign, with allegations of corruption and vote-buying.
Tinubu, a former Governor of Lagos State, has been an important political player in the country for some time now. He credited himself with ensuring the victory of Muhammadu Buhari in the previous two presidential elections and emphasised that “it was his turn” now. He comes from the Yoruba ethnic group, one of the three largest ethnic groups in the country, the other two being the Hausa-Fulani and the Igbos. As Governor of Lagos, the commericial capital of Nigeria, Tinubu was known for his administrative acumen, but he also faced serious allegations of corruption.
The 76-year-old Abubakar first contested the presidency in 1993, and this is his sixth attempt. He served as Vice President from 1999 to 2007. His period in power witnessed reforms in telecommunications, pensions and the banking sector, besides GDP growth and the creation of more jobs than at any time earlier. At the same time, he faced serious accusations of corruption when he presided over the privatisation of government assets.
Abubakar has a long-standing rivalry with Buhari, a fellow Hausa-Fulani. With Buhari not contesting, Abubakar hoped to get the majority of the votes from Muslim Hausa-Fulani-dominated northern part of the country.
Peter Obi, at 61, is the youngest of the three main contenders. He was a former PDP State Governor. After failing to be nominated by the PDP for the presidential race, he hitched his wagon with the much smaller Labour Party. By convention, the presidency rotates from the Muslim North to the Christian South after a President completes two terms in office. Obi, a Christian from the South, expected to be his party’s choice but Abubakar insisted on having another go.
Another convention that was broken was the sharing of the President’s and Vice President’s ticket between Muslim and Christian candidates. Tinubu, a Muslim, chose a Muslim from the northeast as his running mate.
Obi quickly attracted a big fan following among tech savvy youth, many of whom are unemployed while others survive on gig jobs. His promises of restructuring the economy and tackling corruption head-on resonated among the youth. He was also viewed as the least corrupt of the three main candidates.
Obi was the first to protest that the elections were “stolen”. He had surprisingly scored an upset victory in Tinubu’s home turf in Lagos State. He was soon joined by Abubakar in demanding fresh elections on the grounds that there was widespread ballot rigging. Several opinion polls taken before the election had put Obi comfortably ahead. But a significant number of those polled had chosen to keep their preferences to themselves or were undecided. One opinion poll had also predicted that if the abstention rate was high, there was a higher probability of Tinubu emerging as the winner.
Both Abubakar and Obi have said that they will challenge the results in the highest court. Thousands of opposition supporters protested in the capital Abuja in the second week of March. They briefly blockaded the headquarters of the election commission, demanding that the election be held again to ensure accurate results. Abubakar told the protesters that the electoral process had been “completely contravened” and vowed to keep the protest going on indefinitely.
A crisis-ridden economy, high unemployment, runaway inflation, electricity shortage, and fuel short supply in one of the biggest oil producers in the world are the main issues. Besides, in many parts of the country violent attacks by jehadi groups, separatists, and bandits are common. Nearly 90 per cent of Nigerians surveyed by the polling agency “Afrobarometer” said that their country was “going in the wrong direction”.
To further complicate matters, President Buhari ordered the demonetisation of the currency, the second in the country’s history, in October last year. The exercise, was grossly mismanaged. The first demonetisation was carried out in 1983, after the civilian government headed by Shehu Shagari was overthrown by the military under the leadership of Buhari, then a young military officer. The Nigerian currency, which was then almost at par with the American dollar, went downhill and has remained so since then. It was a botched affair then, and this time too it created chaos in the marketplace.
Due to the acute shortage of new currency notes, people who had money in banks had to wait for days to withdraw cash. India, too, had witnessed chaotic scenes during the demonetisation carried out by the Narendra Modi government in 2016. The acute shortage of new currency notes forced many Nigerians to stand in queues outside banks rather than outside polling stations on election day. Nigeria has comparatively few commercial banks and ATMs.
People were openly venting their anger at the ruling party over the chaos caused by demonetisation to their lives. While ordering demonetisation, government officials had claimed that it was being done to ensure the conduct of a graft-free election and stop the well-entrenched practice of vote buying. Godwin Emifiele, Governor, Central Bank of Nigeria, said that the currency notes were being changed to help prevent counterfeiting and stop “ransom payments” to kidnappers. Later, as an afterthought, he claimed that the move would help reduce inflation in the country, currently at 21 per cent.
Interestingly, Emifiele was one of the candidates from the ruling party hoping to succeed Buhari. But Tinubu bested him in the primaries. Tinubu alleged on the campaign trail that some of his colleagues in the ruling party had planned the demonetisation exercise to sabotage his presidential bid. One of Tinubu’s allies, Nasir Muhmmad el-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State, alleged that the masterminds behind the currency change were planning for another military takeover of the country.
But with the deadline for the exchange of old currency notes being extended until after the election, the practice of buying votes went on as usual. An opposition candidate was caught with $500,000 in his car along with a list of intended recipients. Even the offer of cash failed to enthuse the majority of Nigerians to participate enthusiastically in the election. Since the restoration of democracy in 1999, voter participation in elections has continued to drop dramatically. This time, only 24.9 million of the 93.4 million registered voters bothered to cast their ballots. It was the lowest voter turnout ever recorded in the country and in the African continent for a presidential election. Many experts have attributed voter apathy to democratic rule failing to deliver meaningful development. Violence and voter suppression also played a role in the low turnout.
There have been protests after every election held since 1998. So far, the Supreme Court has not interfered in the working of the Election Commission. A local court has, however, given Abubaker and Obi permission to inspect the election materials used during the election. “We will explore all legal and constitutional options to regain our mandate. We won the elections and we will prove it to the Nigerians”, Obi told the media in Abuja.
It is highly unlikely that the efforts of the opposition to overturn the results will succeed. As soon as Tinubu was declared the victor, Mousa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, and Umaru Sissoco Embalo, Chairman of the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in their congratulations. The leaders of other West African States also did likewise. The US State Department congratulated Tinubu and “all Nigerians” for what it described as “a competitive election”. Mary Beth Leonard, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, however, said that the election process had failed to live up to expectations despite the improvements that had been put in place by the election commission. She called on the commission “to address promptly the challenges that can be resolved” before the gubernatorial polls that are scheduled to be held at the end of March.
The election commission had delayed the election by more than a week saying that it needed more time to reconfigure the electronic voting machines. Observers from theEU, the Commonwealth and other monitoring bodies reported a number of problems that had cropped up during the election. These included failure to prevent voter manipulation, poor planning and voting delays. But, importantly, they did not allege fraud. The head of the AU Election Observation Mission, the former President of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta also gave a clean chit to the conduct of the election. In a statement on February 28, he said that “the electoral environment was generally peaceful despite isolated incidents of violence” and that “voting and counting took place in an open and transparent way in the presence of observers, party agents and media”.
Tinubu called on all Nigerians and his political rivals to “join hands” with him so that “we can begin the task of rebuilding our national home together”. Tinubu will inherit a more divided nation. He has only managed to win narrowly. The fractured vote is an indication that ethnic and religious fault lines may have widened.
Tinubu’s foremost challenge will be to revive the economy. Nigeria has gone through two recessions in the past five years. Insecurity and lawlessness pervade almost all parts of the country. The Boko Haram insurgency continues to pose a serious threat in the northeast. Many armed groups operate in other parts of the country, including in the oil rich delta region. Armed bandits have been operating with impunity, attacking passenger trains and kidnapping people for ransom in northwest and central Nigeria. All the same, a peaceful transition of power in Nigeria is a landmark event in a region that has in recent times witnessed a series of military coups.
- Nigerians went to the polls in the last week of February to elect a new President.
- For the first time since gaining Independence in 1960, the country witnessed a three-cornered fight for the top job.
- The Nigerian Independent National Election Commission (INEC) announced that the winner was the 70-year-old Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).
- Bola Tinubu got 37 per cent of the votes cast. Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) came second with 29 per cent and Peter Obi of the Labour Party came third with 25 per cent.