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Nairas in; Votes Out: The 2023 Nigerian Presidential Election and the (Un)Democratic State of the African Giant

Image via This Day

The hands of a businessman peek through a well-ironed suit. Clutched in his right is a large stack of Nigerian naira. The businessman hands the sum of funds to a second man. The unknown man wears no suit. His hands are visibly worn out from strenuous labor. In the worker’s left hand is an election ballot. The worker is rescinding his vote in exchange for the official’s lump sum of cash. This is the image of a political cartoon depicting the political culture in Nigeria. Nairas in; votes out. Nairas in; political consciousness out.

Africa sits in a fragile place. Half a century ago, our forefathers believed that Africa would soon be a stronghold of democracy. My grandfather, Aníbal de Melo, and other Angolan founding fathers traveled to Tanzania to meet with President Julius Nyerere and discuss the development of African socialism. In Ghana, President Kwame Nkrumah advocated for Pan-Africanism across the continent. And in Nigeria, President Nnamdi Azikiwe affirmed in 1949 that “Nigeria should evolve into a fully democratic [nation].” Over seventy years later, this goal remains out of reach. 

On February 25, the sixth consecutive civilian-to-civilian transition of power occurred in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999. In the past, presidential elections in the West African nation have been two-party races. However, this past election was different. In 2023, there were three front-runners, all with a viable shot at the Nigerian presidency—Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the governing All Progressives Party (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the leading opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and Peter Obi of the small but burgeoning Labour Party (LP). The wide range of candidates vying for the title can be attributed to dire, imminent challenges faced by Nigeria in two key areas: security and the economy.

To begin with security, the North-East region of Nigeria is currently plagued with an insurgency. Borno State has faced a violent rebellion led by the extremist organization Boko Haram since 2009. The terrorist organization believes that Northern Nigerian politics are controlled by corrupt, “false” Muslims. As such, Boko Haram seeks to create a “pure Islamic state ruled by Sharia law.” It is estimated that the violence in the state has killed 35,000 individuals and displaced two million. But the conflict in the region has been unfurled. It has reached the entire nation in the form of kidnappings, banditry, and so on.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s economy is plummeting. Inflation in the nation has risen to nearly 22 percent due to the policies of incumbent President Muhammed Buhari. In 2019, the administration closed Nigeria’s land borders to all goods in an attempt to cease the entry of smugglers competing with local producers. Yet, the impact of the policy was higher inflation. The consequent devaluation of the naira was only worsened by the pandemic. Evidently, Nigeria is riddled with instability. The 2023 presidential election was an opportunity to reverse this course.

To win the presidential election in Nigeria, a candidate must receive a simple majority of the popular vote and over 25 percent of the vote in both the federal capital of Abuja and two-thirds of the remaining Nigerian states. Per the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Bola Ahmed Tinubu achieved this feat. In the Commission’s final reporting, Tinubu received 36.6 percent of valid votes, in comparison to Atiku’s 29.1 percent and Obi’s 25.4 percent. As such, Bola Tinubu was declared the next president of Nigeria. But it is not that simple.

The 2023 presidential election in Nigeria was not free and fair. There is evidence of nationwide election fraud and tampering. For example, Nigeria’s anti-graft agency announced on February 24, a day prior to the election, that it had seized 32.4 million naira, roughly $70,000 US dollars, which it claimed had been intended for vote-buying in Lagos. Moreover, innumerable Nigerians left polling stations without casting their ballots, as voting did not commence on time in many locations. Even worse, in some opposition strongholds, such as Lagos and Rivers, voter intimidation, and violent ballot box snatching hindered the democratic process from occurring at all. Evidence of such can be found in the New York Times, which reported on February 25 that gunmen had fired shots at a polling station in Lagos and stolen the ballot boxes present

Despite the optimistic facade of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s statements on the execution of the election, the truth lies in experiences of millions of Nigerians across the country. Engaging in the democratic process in Nigeria is a dangerous task. And it is also a heartbreaking one. To feel helpless in forging the future of your country and foresee it crumbling before the world is an unimaginable pain. Yet, it is a pain intimately felt by Nigerians, and Africans, alike.

In light of this, the aftermath of the election is a foreboding omen. Across the nation, Nigerians are accusing the Electoral Commission of voter disenfranchisement. Local businesspeople vehemently believe that “in the eyes of God, [Tinubu] is not the winner.” Many Nigerians are convinced that President-elect Tinubu was handpicked by the INEC. As rickshaw driver Chinedu Chukwunata put it, “[Nigerians] are tired of the corruption. We want justice in Nigeria.” Given the demonstrations across the country, it is clear that Chukwunata’s sentiment is echoed by the masses.

For now, it will remain unknown whether the Nigerian people truly chose Tinubu. The accounts of election irregularities alone cannot establish that the All Progressives Party’s victory is illegitimate. However, the vote-buying, violent ballot snatching, bribery, and destruction of polling units reveal to us that the Nigerian political elite has little regard for the voice of the Nigerian people. And despite the blind admiration some communities may have for Tinubu, the President-elect is now at the pinnacle of the Nigerian political sphere. As such, Tinubu will exercise significant control over whether Nigerians’ votes matter. Some may say that in embracing the election results, even amid news of corruption, Tinubu has declared his answer. In any case, that is for each of us to decide.

In the words of Dr Leena Koni Hoffman, associate fellow at Chatham House, “[Nigeria] urgently needs to reflect on how its politics overlooks, excludes, and disempowers.” Political exclusion has long sustained the hold of the All Progressives Party and the People’s Democratic Party. However, Nigeria’s electorate is shifting. Approximately 75 percent of registered voters, 93.4 million individuals, are below the age of 49. This younger generation is contemptuous of older politicians, who they say have done little for them. Undoubtedly, the rapid rise of political outsider Obi and his Labour Party is a symptom of this sentiment. Given this reality, President-elect Tinubu and the APC cannot afford to betray Nigerians once again.

So, build the economy; fight the insurgency in the Northeast region; mend the separatism between the North and South. But also, heal the social contract between the Nigerian state and society. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, Nigerians today “do not merely sit back and complain but [act and push back and want to forge their own futures.]” With that, Tinubu, and Nigeria’s political elite, need to follow the real leader: the people.

Beautifully written by Adichie, “I know Nigeria, the country of my birth, intimately.” And, as an African, in Nigeria’s reflection, I see the continent. I see the continent in all of its imperfections: the new political elites’ entitlement; the battle cries of the people to be seen, to be heard. But I also see the fight of a blossoming generation in Africa. Because, emi lo kan—it is our turn.