Nigeria is the world’s sixth-most populous country and the most populous nation in Africa. And, since the end of military rule in 1999, it is also the continent’s largest democracy. But, as the February 25th election has revealed, its democracy is flawed. Low voter turnout and voter suppression were rampant, and the announcement of the incumbent All Progressives Congress’ (APC) victory was met with immediate allegations of voter fraud from opposition parties. However, despite the chaos, the election also brought a sign of hope. Peter Obi, of the up-and-coming Labour party, was able to garner 6.1 million votes in a nation dominated by two hegemonic political parties. In a country whose democracy is tenuous, the Labour Party’s success is a sign of a brighter future.
Nigeria is as diverse as it is large. Among its 200 million people, there are over 270 ethnic groups who speak over 370 languages. This diversity is also present in religion, which is a crucial source of identity in a country with large Muslim and Christian populations. Its Muslims reside mostly in the North, while Christians mostly live in the South. In light of these demographics, the founders of Nigeria’s democracy created a unique election system. As well as earning the greatest number of votes, any candidate in Nigeria must get 25 percent of the votes in at least two-thirds of the country’s 36 states, including the capital territory, Abuja, in order to win the presidency. This system was designed to ensure no single ethnic or religious group in Nigeria dominates the electoral system.
The desire to protect the diverse interests of Nigeria’s many religious groups has also led to a pattern in Nigerian elections in which the presidency is rotated between Muslim Northerners and Christian Southerners. Parties also often put forth a vice presidential candidate of a religion different from the presidential candidate’s to court both Muslim and Christian voters. The outrage against the decision by the APC to run a Muslim-Muslim ticket this election demonstrates the importance of this informal precedent to Nigerians.
Nigeria’s emphasis on ethnic and religious groups, however, has led its politics to center more on identity than on policy. Politicians often do not stand for particular issues and they frequently cross ideological lines as it suits them and their careers. Voters, in return, often do not vote for candidates according to their political positions, but their social identities. This approach to politics has contributed to a sentiment of entitlement among Nigerian politicians. To many, being president is seen as a reward, rather than an opportunity to do public service. The slogan “It’s my turn” of the winner of this year’s election, Bola Tinubu, epitomizes this view of the presidential office.
This entitlement, and the neglect it fosters, has defined much of Nigeria’s two major parties’ leadership. Although the APC and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) often campaign on lofty promises, their presidencies have always fallen short. The previous president, Muhammadu Buhari, not only promised to defeat the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, but also to heal the ailing economy and clean up corruption. Instead, during his presidency, corruption increased, spreading to other sectors such as healthcare and education; Boko Haram continued to be a dire threat to the nation; and the economy remained stagnant. However, without much threat of losing power, the two major parties of Nigeria have historically had little incentive to take true action against these issues.
Cue Peter Obi. A well-liked former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi left the PDP the day before his political rival, Atiku Abubakar, was declared its candidate for president. Days later, Obi won the nomination of the little-known Labour Party. Immediately, he got to work building his base, drawing people together on issues such as unemployment, justice, and fighting corruption—issues that Nigerians care about, but that former presidents have often neglected. In his manifesto, titled “It’s POssible: Our Pact With Nigerians,” Obi outlined plans to invest in Nigeria’s human capital and innovation. With 40 percent of youth unemployed, his promises have resonated strongly with young Nigerians, who have become disillusioned with the future of their country.
In contrast to his opposition, who are seen by many as big-money strongmen, Obi is also careful to appear approachable to many voters. Notably, he is seen carrying his own briefcase, joining lines at the airport, and moving without the huge convoys characteristic of typical Nigerian politicians. The people in his base, who have dubbed themselves the OBIdients, consist mostly of young Nigerians who feel inspired by the prospect of change Obi represents in their troubled nation. With a median age of 18, Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world, and many of these young people who would not have voted in the election found themselves motivated to turn up to the polls in support of their newfound candidate. In an election with 93.4 million voters—the most in Nigerian history—84 percent of newly registered voters were aged 18 to 34. Moreover, appealing to the youth vote is not only outreach to a large swath of voters, but also an investment in the future of the nation. Obi is well aware of what he symbolizes. “I’d rather die for Nigeria than disappoint the youth who have placed their hope in me,” he was quoted saying in a rally.
On election day, Obi’s campaign translated into relative success. Obi garnered 25 percent of the vote, not far behind President-elect Bola Tinubu, who won 37 percent of the vote, and Atiku Abubakar, who won 29 percent of the vote. Notably, he won Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, and the capital, Abuja. And, although election day was marred with challenges, democracies abroad such as the United States and United Kingdom congratulated the nation for conducting an election that was largely peaceful and somewhat efficient in an area of the world long plagued by military coups and power grabs by despotic leaders. Although Peter Obi was not able to win the 2023 Nigerian presidential election, he was able to inspire and mobilize the youth of Nigeria, who have been losing hope in their nation. Influential Nigerians, such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo and venerated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, have also thrown their full support behind Obi and the new vision he represents. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Nigerian journalist Dele Olojede stated, Obi has certainly shaken things up: “It forces the other two candidates not to take things for granted.” With a third party as a formidable threat to power, the two major parties will be forced to do better to deliver on their policy promises. Although the 2023 election was not without its flaws, Peter Obi’s campaign proves that there is hope for Nigeria’s democracy.