Saturday, Nigeria will hold its national elections for a new president as President Buhari’s two terms in office come to a close. Two weeks later, the state governors’ elections will take place. The Council on Foreign Relations listed Nigeria’s elections among the top five to watch in 2023. Similarly, The New Humanitarianwarned that volatility in Nigeria’s elections could trigger a humanitarian crisis.
Many commentators believe this will be Nigeria’s most crucial election since the end of military rule in 1999. Although 19 candidates are running for the presidency, the three leading contenders offer a mixed bag. Two of them, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, are over 70 years old, deeply entrenched in the nation’s politics, and have reputations for corruption. The third, Peter Obi, has a greater reputation for integrity and more support among the nation’s young people, but most analysts believe he holds a lesser chance for victory.
Buhari won the presidency eight years ago on promises to defeat the threat posed by Boko Haram. While the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was gaining unfortunate international notoriety among the western media, Boko Haram was inflicting a far higher death toll on Nigeria and the surrounding region. Various terror tactics, from kidnapping, bombings, and murder, made Boko Haram a plague that demanded attention from political leaders.
Now, at the conclusion of his terms in office, Buhari’s supporters contend he did his best, but the threat remains. Boko Haram’s influence has diminished somewhat, but new threats have arisen. The Islamic State in West Africa surged as a splinter group from Boko Haram. Millions of Nigerians have been displaced in the northeast part of the country. The security in Borno state is so tentative that many representatives of aid groups and non-governmental organizations refuse to travel by land there. Today 1.6 million people remain displaced in Borno state alone.
Last year, the Islamic State of West Africa claimed its highest number of victims since it detached from Boko Haram 7 years ago. Last year, the International Crisis Group reported at least 10,000 Nigerians killed in armed conflict, while another 5,000 faced abduction.
The continued threat of extremists in Nigeria remains so prevalent that the government deployed 400,000 police officers for the election out of concerns extremists may try to disrupt the vote. This move comes in response to some armed insurrectionist groups ordering entire towns not to vote in the upcoming elections.
Inflation has surged in Nigeria. In 2022 prices rose for ten consecutive months. That trend has not stopped. In February, reports show Nigeria’s inflation at more than 21%. This is mainly driven by food prices, impacting the country’s poor the heaviest. Today 133 million Nigerians live in multidimensional poverty. The World Bank says four out of five Nigerians live below the poverty line. Soaring unemployment translates to little cause for hope in Africa’s most populous nation. A national unemployment rate of 33% increases to 42.5% for young adults. These are troubling statistics in a country where 70% of the population is under the age of 30.
Disorganized policies by the Buhari government have triggered fuel shortages in one of the world’s greatest oil-producing economies. Simultaneously, the government implemented a currency reform program pushing the frustrations of Nigerians to the brink as they lack fuel and currency on the eve of the elections.
Increasingly Nigerians appear to be losing hope in the political system’s ability to resolve these issues. That lost hope means lower voter turnout and higher rates of corruption. The Independent Corrupt Practices Commission estimated that $26 million were exchanged in bribes for favorable judgments in election-related cases between 2018 and 2020. The 2019 presidential election saw a record-low voter turnout of 34.75%. In a system plagued with corruption, low voter turnout means a higher likelihood of vote buying among those choosing to go to the polls. The cycle of corruption perpetuates.
What Comes Next
Like many places in the world today, Nigeria represents a tinderbox of frustrations resting on the shoulders of a young, disenfranchised, and untrusting population.
To win the election, the leading candidate must secure the highest number of votes nationwide and more than a quarter of the ballots in a minimum of two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. If none of the candidates achieve that this weekend, a run-off will be scheduled within 21 days.
In this environment, the most likely outcome is the vaguest outcome. That will lead to the mechanisms of corruption transforming into means of polarization. It is unlikely that the defining issue will be who is strongest, but more, who, if any, of the candidates is willing to put the nation’s interests ahead of their own and concede. The backdrop of the polarized power moves we can expect to follow the elections is an electorate that may decide they have had enough.