On the Brink of Democratic Demise: Nigeria’s 2023 National Elections

When US presidential – even House and Senate elections, for that matter – take place, it is no exaggeration to say that the world tunes in. Of course, there is a legitimate reason behind this: what happens within the global hegemon’s borders affects all regions of the world and thus the attention their elections – or any other events there – attract is reasonable. By this logic, then, one would assume all globally consequential elections draw equal attention. Yet, it is no secret that this is simply not the case. Nigeria’s upcoming elections on the 25th of February 2023 are a case in point. 

Whether this lack of attention is due to the dominance of largely Western-centric, “mainstream” media outlets which flood news cycles, or a historic ignorance towards African affairs, or Hollywood’s glamorisation and romanticisation of – even slight obsession with – American politics is a debate for another day. Right now, Nigeria’s fast-approaching national elections are, as put by Foreign Policy columnist, Howard French, “where the world’s eyes should be”. Why these elections are particularly important boils down to a number of reasons. Nigeria is not only Africa’s largest country but also the continent’s largest economy. It is also the 5th largest democracy in the world. Given the rate at which its population is growing, Nigeria will soon be the 3rd most populous country in the world. Although pointing in a positive, upward direction, these statistics do not reflect that which is ultimately spiralling downward: the state of Nigerian democracy. 

For a country that used to be the region’s peacekeeper, Nigeria has lost control over the security situation and thus stability and peace in many parts of the country. This can be attributed to the devastating emergence over the past few years of Islamist Extremist groups – most notably Boko Haram – in the North-East, and violent successionist groups in the South-East. One may question at this point where the upcoming election fits in and why it matters. 

Of course, what each of the three presidential candidates – Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi – are advocating for is an important consideration. Tinubu, 70, of the All Progressives Congress party, is campaigning with the slogan that it’s “his turn” – which, despite allegations of corruption against him – speaks for itself. Abubakar, 76, of the People’s Democratic Party, is running for a sixth time and like Tinubu, carries allegations of corruption during his various roles as a civil servant, including that of vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo. Obi, 61, of the lesser-known Labour Party, is campaigning with the intention of disassembling the two-party system which has been in place since 1999. Obi has mobilised a significant amount of support from the youth. However, he is unlikely to win according to critics from the BBC.

In a climate where gunshots ring louder than campaign messages, it is arguably the chaotic situation in which the election is taking place rather than the candidates’ promises that is of utmost concern. Could the election be a catalyst for civil unrest in the already dangerous, violence-ridden country? Or, is the ongoing unrest and recent attacks on electoral facilities and staff a catalyst for the derailing of the election process and thus Nigeria’s state of democracy as a whole? 

According to The Guardian, Nigerian elections have been “characterised by low turnout”, with 44 and 35 percent turnout in 2015 and 2019 respectively. Experts have warned that these figures could see an even further decrease during the 2023 elections due to “disenfranchisement caused by insecurity”. When interviewed by the BBC, Mrs Sani, a female resident of the village of Katsina and a victim of abduction – a common occurrence in Nigeria – expressed her unwillingness to vote in the coming weeks: “you let kidnappers take me, now you want my vote”. These negative sentiments are widely shared among the many Nigerians who are threatened by acts of terrorism every day. The implication of this lack of participation from registered voters is that it affects the credibility of the election results and possibly, then, the people’s and candidates’ willingness to accept the final outcome. The credibility issue is further exacerbated by historic corruption, vote buying, and other logistical issues. It is clear that Nigerian democracy and by extension, any prospects of peace within the country are under threat. This election and the climate in which it is taking place matters. 

The responses to this problem – both national and international – are limited. Nationally, it is not unlikely that the election will be delayed to a later date, where the issue of widespread non-participation will simply persist. On an international level, the most common response has been from the European Union, who since the 2003 elections has been conducting Election Observation Missions in the country. According to The Diplomatic Service of the European Union, the purpose of these missions is to “provide a comprehensive, independent and impartial assessment of the electoral process based on international and regional standards for democratic elections” and are ultimately part of the EU’s goal to promote “democracies, human rights and civil society participation worldwide”.

How exactly the EU achieves this, at least according to them, is listed on their website – a list in need of discussion on another day – with the end-point being the release of a “final report” which sets out various recommendations to improve the “integrity and effectiveness of future electoral processes and the wider process of democratisation”. One may speculate as to why this response has been generated repeatedly – perhaps this is the best way for institutions of the West, such as the EU, to promote their idea of democracy without directly interfering with the results of the election and Nigeria’s sovereignty, especially since the missions are only deployed on invitation from the country in question. 

The response sounds reasonable, even logical. But given that the mission has been deployed since elections in 2003 and that the climate in which the elections are being held has only deteriorated – along with voter participation – one may question the extent to which the mission holds any real efficacy. Is such a fragile democracy plagued by growing violence and unrest in a position to implement the recommendations? Do they have the capacity, resources and expertise to do so? Perhaps the issue is that the mission is treating only a symptom of a much greater ailment. As alluded to earlier by Mrs Sani, asking people to participate in a democracy that is ultimately failing them is counter-productive, perhaps even insulting. Providing recommendations about how to improve elections – although important – when  people on the ground can think only of their day-to-day safety, may also be counter-productive. 

As with many crises, there is never a single silver bullet. Moving forward, the international community needs to place much greater pressure on the Nigerian government – perhaps, through targeted sanctions directed at corrupt officials: the people who suffer the least, yet have the ability to do the most for their people. International organisations such as the International Criminal Court, which reported in 2020 that there is “reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity” were committed (and continue to be committed) in Nigeria, should continue investigations in the country as a means of adding further pressure and possibly isolating the country. In terms of what can be done on the ground to improve the daily lives of the most vulnerable people, greater involvement in counter-terrorism efforts such as international collaboration to track financial flows, share intelligence and provide the necessary resources and equipment to curb the rising attacks is a viable option.

Education is another avenue that is often overlooked: as encouraged by the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, education is a powerful tool which can be used to reduce violent extremism, a key cause of terrorism. Furthermore, given that Nigeria is arguably a victim of the “Resource Curse” – Richard Auty’s idea that natural resource abundance tends to produce negative developmental outcomes such as high levels of corruption, political violence, poverty and other problems – and that the oil region of the Niger Delta is a hotspot for violence, privatisation of their national oil company may be a consequential move in the right direction. Although it was reported in August 2022 by various local news networks that this had taken place, there is no clarity as to whether the privatisation process has been completed and whether and when it eventually will be. 

What lies ahead for Nigeria remains to be seen, but it is not hard to envisage a situation in which democracy in the country continues down a dangerous path. Whether the EU’s mission and subsequent report are consequential this time around will depend, perhaps, on the final election outcome and the extent to which the winning candidate has a sense of urgency towards the rapidly worsening situation in the country and a desire to truly improve it. Although not as popularised and sensationalised as the US voting season, Nigeria’s 2023 elections deserve equal if not more attention – what happens in the country matters for the region, the continent as a whole – where fragile democracies are not uncommon – and for the prospects of peace in Nigeria; a peace which the people of the country desperately need. 

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