Democracy in Nigeria Has Stalled


by John Campbell

On February 23, President Muhammadu Buhari was elected to a second term, defeating the chief opposition candidate and former vice president, Atiku Abubakar. As always, there was more violence associated with the elections than received attention in the Western media, but fortunately there was no spike when the Independent National Elections Commission (INEC) announced the results. Despite the elections’ significant shortcomings, most Nigerians appear to accept the results.

Of the eighty million people that registered to vote and the seventy-two million that picked-up their voter registration cards—necessary to cast a ballot—only about thirty-five million actually voted. This represented the lowest turnout since the restoration of civilian government in 1999. In fact, turnout has been declining since the 2003 presidential election.

About five hours before polls were set to open on February 16, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pushed the vote back a week. Despite previous assurances that all was going according to plan, INEC blamed the delay on logistical difficulties, especially involving the delivery of voting materials to some 120,000 polling places in a country with very poor infrastructure.

Critics from Nigerian civil society are credibly alleging that the security services kept potential voters away from polls in areas known to favor Atiku Abubakar. There are also allegations of vote buying perpetrated by both camps. According to its statement [PDF], Situation Room, an umbrella of civil society organizations, members of the security services also attempted to intimidate INEC workers during voting and ballot counting. Election Day in many places appears to have been chaotic, with many polling stations opening late.

The Winner

According to INEC, President Buhari won by a margin of four million votes. His votes came overwhelmingly from the Muslim north of the country, reflecting his deep popularity among the poor there. He also did well in Lagos and Yorubaland, where he was strongly supported by Lagos kingmaker Bola Tinubu. Atiku carried the south and east of the country, which are the predominantly Christian parts of the country. Voter turnout in the north exceeded 50 percent, compared with only 20 percent in the south and east. Atiku Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has released its own tabulation of the vote, showing that Atiku won by some two million votes, and is seeking the overturn of the INEC tabulation by the courts. In the past, all such efforts have failed.

More of the Same

For many Nigerians, Buhari and Atiku were more alike than different. Both are of the same generation, born before independence and currently in their seventies, and both are seeking to represent a country whose average age is eighteen. Both are Fulani and Muslim, and neither are religious fanatics. While Buhari is generally seen as not personally corrupt, many of those around him are. Atiku, on the other hand, has long been accused of personal corruption. On security, neither have advanced credible new ideas for addressing Boko Haram, militants and separatism in and around the oil patch, or farmer-herder clashes in the middle belt.

For now, Nigerians appear to accept tacitly President Buhari’s reelection, no matter the election’s flaws. Already, some are privately saying that the shortcomings of the election are an indication that democracy as a system cannot address Nigeria’s problems. For friends of Nigeria, the record-low voter turnout and apparent public apathy may be the most consequential feature of the 2019 elections.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.