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Could Nigeria’s 2023 elections challenge national unity?

Nigeria’s next elections are only a year away and as always, the conduct of the polls and who emerges as the victors will have a profound bearing on not only the West African region but Africa as a whole and the perception of the continent in the world at large. As the campaigning begins to gather momentum, Neil Ford looks at the likely contenders for the top spots and who can keep the fractious country together.

With religious, regional and ethnic differences pulling at the fabric of the country, it is perhaps more surprising that Nigeria remains intact 60 years after independence than that it functions at all, even as badly as it does. But no sooner does an election loom over the horizon, than local and foreign Cassandras are always out in force, predicting civil war and state collapse.

But Nigeria has lived with two decades of civilian rule and while the quality of governance has generally been well below par for a country with so many high-calibre people, it seems to have found a political formula that has so far worked in a country of such complexity.

But with massive economic, social and security issues dogging people’s everyday lives, no one is under any illusion that the political status quo is very fragile and, as happened in the past, is fraught with Black Swan possibilities. Any event can spill over and run out of control. Nigeria’s history warns us that nothing can be taken for granted.

Given Nigeria’s vast population, its diversity and an increasingly big gap between the rich and the poor, the country needs a very strong and flexible body politic. With the 2023 elections less than 12 months away, will they help deepen the nation’s democratic roots, or will they tug just a little more at national cohesion, threatening to loosen the ties?

Race has begun

The race to become the next of Head of State has already begun, with President Muhammadu Buhari set to step down after eight years in office. His victory in 2015 was the first time in Nigerian history that the incumbent president had been defeated. It was also a victory for persistence given that he lost 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections, so the 2023 poll will be the first Nigerian Presidential poll since 1999 in which he has not been involved. 

Buhari’s time in power has been overshadowed by his poor health and debate over whether he was able to continue. However, his economic record has not been a good one, partly because of a lack of economic diversification but also because, more recently, of the impact of the pandemic. The current high oil prices have strengthened government finances somewhat. 

Some progress has been made on improving national infrastructure, particularly through road construction, but badly needed new port capacity is not yet in place and the power sector still fails to keep up with demand. 

The long-delayed Petroleum Investment Bill was finally passed in 2021 but it remains to be seen whether it will improve the domestic gas supply and boost oil exploration. Public faith in the courts and police is at an all-time low, while freedom of expression has come under attack, with media outlets closed down and Twitter temporarily banned.

The former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Attahiru Jega, has warned that Nigeria is in danger of collapse because of misrule by the political elite. He said that the overwhelming majority of the population live and work in sorry socio-economic conditions because the country’s leaders have “devastated the Nigerian economy, heightened insecurity, and virtually destroyed the basis for national cohesion and integration”. 

One of Buhari’s most recent acts in power was to approve changes to the electoral law in February, to allow the electronic transfer and collation of votes by INEC in an effort to improve transparency. Legal challenges to the results of the 2019 elections were based on concerns over the security of electronically tallied and transferred votes, but the President had previously opposed the changes, particularly in relation to party primaries. 

It is hoped that the new rules will prevent ballot stuffing, while biometric checks on identity should help prevent fraud. Buhari commented: “These innovations would guarantee the constitutional rights of citizens to vote and to do so effectively.”

However, continued insecurity in the northwest could make it difficult for people to vote. It is vital that those in temporary accommodation are enfranchised even where the election machinery has yet to catch up with their displaced homes.

Keeping the nation intact

Huge differences have always threatened to pull the nation apart. It is easy to oversimplify the division between the largely Muslim north and a mainly Christian south, not least because it fails to take into account the many Nigerian animists, the millions of Christians living in northern cities and the countless Muslims who’ve migrated to the south. 

It also ignores the political and economic disgruntlement in the southeast, which it must not be forgotten led to the bloody 1967-70 Biafran War. There are also big rivalries, ethnic and otherwise, within each region. Nigeria is a complicated and diverse country.

All this requires a strong body politic to keep the country together and this is one area where Nigeria is sadly lacking. Trust in central government is low and too many suspects that political leaders favour those in their own state, region, ethnic group, or religious group. At the same time, political parties function less like cohesive parties with comprehensive policies and rather more as campaigning machines for the country’s big men. Women remain largely excluded. 

Part of the problem is that the two main parties are very new: Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) was only formed in 2014, while the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has ruled the country for most of the past 23 democratic years, was founded in 1998 in preparation for elections the following year. 

Corruption continues to be widespread and there is a real feeling that by far the best chance of gaining wealth is by tapping into oil revenues in one form or another, whether by accessing government funds or even stealing the oil itself. 

While the economy does have some points of innovation, it remains fragile, hugely over-reliant on oil and gas revenues and with too few opportunities for the nation’s youth. Given the scale of the unofficial economy, it is unwise to read too much into GDP figures, but far too many young Nigerian high achievers still feethe need to leave the country to make the most of their talents.

Those who cannot or will not look for economic salvation outside the country, and who number many millions, will look to the new political dispensation to find solutions for their problems. Failure to do so could very well mobilise the youth to take to the streets again. 

North-south balance

The Constitution helps to keep a lid on some of these tensions, with defined roles for federal and state governments. And above all else, there is a well-known informal understanding that the Presidency should alternate between a northern Muslim and a southern Christian, with the accompanying Vice President coming from the opposite group. This is a far from perfect system, in that it excludes many people but – with the exception of the southeast – it does soften regional and religious tensions. 

Some argue that this zoning arrangement should be abandoned and that leaders should be chosen on ability rather than according to the background. However, ending it would be risky and once discarded, the tradition would be difficult to rebuild. 

Even within the zoning system, candidates must be able to secure significant support from beyond their religious and ethnic groups. Successful candidates have to secure at least 25% of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of states.

The APC and PDP look set to remain the main political powers next year, in the Senate, the House, in the country’s 36 state governments and in providing the eventual Presidential winner. 

It is difficult to discern any great vision for the country’s future or even a positive manifesto for change among the main parties. Even more than in most other countries, politics appears to be about gaining power for power’s sake rather than because of any real political conviction. 

Just a year out from the election, it might be expected that the two main parties would already have their favoured candidates in place but this is not the case. Candidates are generally reluctant to appear eager to stand, with campaigns stage-managed to make it appear that their supporters have more or less forced them into it. 

One of the main elements in the APC is the old Action Congress of Nigeria, which dominated the Yoruba southwest, and a candidate from that region seems most likely to win the Presidency. Former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu would fit the bill and has already expressed his intention to stand, as has Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who is another favourite. 

A Muslim northerner, Atiku Abubakar, is keen to stand again but his candidature would be controversial given that a southerner is scheduled for election. Making a selection will not be easy given that the APC struggled to decide who would chair its national convention this March, with the courts forced to intervene to make a decision. 

Several potential PDP northern candidates have emerged in the form of Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State, Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State and the 2019 Vice Presidential candidate, Peter Obi. However, southern PDP candidates have thus far been slower to come forward.

On balance, it seems likely that the principle of zoning will remain in place. It would be better to choose Presidential candidates purely in terms of their ability but abandoning zoning seems far too dangerous at this stage. 

Moreover, it would seem to be wise if the next southern candidate were to come from the southeast to avoid strengthening the feeling that the region will be eternally excluded. It is the only region not to produce a President or Vice-President since 1999.

But leaving aside the winners and losers in the zoning stakes, the rapidly rising population of young people with their myriad – and justified – demands will not settle for cosmetic changes, as they have already warned their political parties 


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