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Nigeria's Presidential Election: a Fight for Democracy

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

In this Briefing, MSc International Relations student Alexander Cook discusses the upcoming presidential election in Nigeria and the controversy surrounding its candidates and electoral process. This article was edited by Carola Ducco (Co-Editor).


Nigeria’s 93.4 million registered voters will soon visit the polls to elect a new government. On the 25th of February, elections will take place to choose a new president and National Assembly, and on the 11th of March, voters will cast ballots for gubernatorial and state legislative candidates. The elections offer Nigerians, 77% of whom are dissatisfied with their government, the chance to chart a new course for Africa’s largest economy and most populous country. The winner of the presidential election will succeed 80-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari of the All-Progressives Congress (APC), who will become only the second Nigerian president to leave office after two complete terms (as required by the Constitution), since the country’s pivot to democracy in 1999.

Major Presidential Candidates

18 candidates are standing to replace President Buhari, though only three are considered major contenders. Bola Ahmed Tinubu is the National Leader of the APC, the ruling party. Mr. Tinubu, who is 70 years old, is a former senator and the former governor of Lagos, Nigeria’s richest state. He claims that his involvement in Nigerian politics over the last 25 years makes it “a matter of right” for him to become president. Yet Mr. Tinubu, an accountant by training, has been plagued by questions about the source of his wealth, including accusations made by the U.S. Justice Department that financial accounts opened in Mr. Tinubu’s name in the 1990s contained funds obtained by selling heroin. Mr. Tinubu disputes this, stating that he made his fortune while working for Deloitte. Nonetheless, Mr. Tinubu, who was not personally charged in the case, reached a settlement under which he forfeited $460,000 (~£375,000). Moreover, in 2018, Oladapo Apara, a former Managing Director at the Nigerian accounting firm Alpha-Beta, filed suit against Mr. Tinubu for tax evasion and fraud, though the case culminated in an out-of-court settlement. To date, Mr. Tinubu has not been convicted of a crime.

Mr. Tinubu is facing off against Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Mr. Abubakar, who is 76 and has run for president five times before, served as vice president from 1999 until 2007. While in office, he spearheaded telecommunications, pension, and banking reforms that ultimately led to growth in jobs and GDP. Mr. Abubakar also made a personal fortune in the oil sector, some of which he donated to charity, including establishing a Western-style school in northern Nigeria. Yet despite his experience, several controversies hang over Mr. Abubakar’s head. Notably, former-President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom Mr. Abubakar served as vice president, accused him of embezzling £117m from a state oil fund, and the U.S. Senate alleged in a 2010 committee report that Mr. Abubakar, through one of his four wives, had transferred over £24m into the U.S. through offshore shell companies. Mr. Abubakar does not face charges either in Nigeria or abroad. Mr. Abubakar is also a Muslim from Northern Nigeria (like outgoing President Buhari), causing some to complain that electing him would violate Nigeria’s unspoken rule of alternating the presidency between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south. On the other hand, Mr. Tinubu is a Muslim from southern Nigeria, which would allow the informal pattern to continue.

Peter Obi, the 61-year-old Labour Party candidate, offers a relatively young and fresh option for voters. Mr. Obi served as governor of Anambra state from 2006-2014, earning a reputation as frugal and fiscally prudent. Mr. Obi, who is from southern Nigeria, is also the only Catholic of the three frontrunners. He is a wealthy businessman and is especially popular among younger voters who want to pivot away from the APC and PDP, which have dominated Nigerian politics since 1999. Yet Mr. Obi, who has changed political parties four times since 2002, also faces financial controversies of his own. Most notably, he was named in the Pandora Papers, a 2021 leak that exposed the methods the world’s wealthy use to move and hide their money. Mr. Obi’s candidacy also faces structural hurdles. Because he is Catholic, he has struggled to gain support in the Muslim-majority north, which is generally crucial for presidential hopefuls. Furthermore, the Labour Party is extraordinarily weak in Nigeria, holding no gubernatorial offices, depriving Mr. Obi of the advantages - namely money and campaign infrastructure - of major-party affiliation.

Key Issues

The winner of the election will face several large issues. The World Bank estimates that 90 million of Nigeria’s 200 million people are impoverished, in part due to Nigeria’s estimated 21% inflation. Moreover, oil output, a key driver of Nigeria’s economy, has experienced a year-on-year decline of over 22%. The country’s economy is further destabilized by endemic corruption, which in 2012 caused Nigeria to be ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world. This includes both political and personal corruption (of the sort the leading presidential candidates are all accused of) and electoral corruption. Indeed, the BBC reported that political parties in Nigeria are paying social media influencers to post disinformation about opposition candidates in exchange for cash, government appointments, or other rewards. Nigeria is also plagued by terrorism. Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa continue to conduct attacks and kidnappings throughout the country, contributing to the internal displacement of at least three million people to date. In 2022, armed conflict killed at least 10,000 Nigerians, and an additional 5,000 were abducted.

Safety & Integrity

Nigeria’s domestic instability has caused concern over voter safety and election integrity. For instance, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, the Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) recently said that in the last four years, 50 electoral facilities have been attacked. While concerning, he emphasized that this is a fraction of Nigeria’s nearly 177,000 polling places and that the INEC is working closely with the military to guarantee voter security, especially in areas with active terrorism. Moreover, Chairman Yakubu has said that INEC is working to ensure that the roughly three million internally displaced people within Nigeria have the ability to cast their vote and are not disenfranchised due to their displaced status.

The INEC also faces concerns about widespread vote buying, fraud, and voter intimidation. Local media reports that politicians are buying Nigerians’ Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), and that nearly one-third of Nigerians would be willing to sell their vote in exchange for money, gifts, or favors. Moreover, many observers have spotted duplicate registrations and names of children and deceased people in the country’s voter registry, available online for public examination.

The INEC has downplayed these concerns, noting that Nigerian law requires voters to present a PVC and that voters are verified at polling places using the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, a device that uses biometric data like fingerprints to verify voters’ identity and registration status. Furthermore, the INEC has said that the prohibition of mobile phones in polling places, the use of private cubicles for voter use, and the decreasing of the distance between cubicles and ballot boxes should all reduce voter intimidation.

International Stakes

Nigeria’s elections are a matter of intense international attention. Nigeria is Africa’s largest and fastest-growing economy and is set to be the world’s third most populous country by 2050. Nigeria’s population is also very young, and the country is resource-rich, including having the largest agricultural output and the third-largest manufacturing sector in Africa. This means that the country’s international importance will only increase over time, especially as global attention and investment continue to shift toward the region.

The leaders that Nigerians elect will not only craft policy that affects Nigeria, but also has profound effects across Africa. Nigeria is a regional leader that many African states look to. A peaceful and economically prosperous Nigeria, therefore, can help shape peace and prosperity across Africa, speeding up the continent’s integration into the global economy. But a corrupt and conflict-driven Nigeria will embolden similar actions in neighboring states, stymying African development and security.

The results of Nigeria’s elections are also important globally. As the country continues to grow as a center for foreign direct investment, receiving over three billion dollars per year, it’s critical that Nigeria’s next leaders are serious about tackling both corruption and security concerns. Positive relations with major global powers are also important to ensure the continued provision of aid and cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other areas of mutual interest. As the world’s fifth largest democracy, Nigeria will continue to be a point of focus for Western leaders seeking to gain a reliable democratic ally in Africa (potentially analogous to Israel’s role as a key democratic ally in the Middle East).

Looking Forward

Regardless of who wins the presidency on the 25th of February (or on the 18th of March if there is a runoff), there are two noteworthy trends to watch. The first is the role of young voters in the election. Over 70% of Nigeria’s 93 million registered voters are under 50 years old, and 35% are between 18 and 34 years old, leading Chairman Yakubu to call this election the “election of the young people”. This cycle, the prime beneficiary of the young adult voters’ enthusiasm is directed towards Mr. Obi, who is seen by many young Nigerians as the candidate most likely to change the status quo and usher in a new era of government. More broadly, though, the surge in young people’s voter registrations signals growing trust in Nigeria’s electoral process. For a country that for decades has struggled with deep corruption, this is not insignificant.

Second, both Nigerians and the international community will be watching closely to see whether the country’s young democratic institutions can again withstand the division and emotion caused by nationwide elections. Since Nigeria transitioned from military rule to civilian government in 1999, it has enjoyed nearly 25 years of continuous democracy. And for only the second time in Nigerian history, the incumbent president is stepping down peacefully due to constitutionally mandated term limits. Accordingly, despite all the flaws that Nigerians acknowledge their country faces, a peaceful and legitimate election would be a significant step in Nigeria’s pursuit of peace and prosperity.

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