On Feb. 25, Nigerians elected a new president in a process that fell far short of what voters deserved and expected. The election—which delivered the presidency to Bola Tinubu, the ruling All Progressives Congress party’s candidate—was widely described as “flawed” inside and outside Nigeria, casting a shadow over Tinubu’s anticipated inauguration on May 29.
With West Africa beset by democratic backsliding, many had hoped that a successful election in Nigeria would help renew the region’s commitment to democracy at a pivotal moment. Not only is Nigeria Africa’s largest economy and most populous state, but in a generation it will also likely surpass the United States to become the world’s second-largest democracy after India. There is every reason for young Nigerians to expect that a flourishing Nigeria can be the democratic driver of an African century. The world, therefore, has a strong interest in helping Nigeria and its 220 million citizens succeed.
Despite the shortcomings of Nigeria’s election, it produced some encouraging results. For the first time in Nigerian history, a third-party presidential candidate made a serious showing. No former military general was on the ballot, a first since the end of military rule in 1999, and many incumbents were voted out on election day. The ruling party won only 36 percent of the vote, compared to 56 percent in 2019. In more than half the states, the winning presidential candidate represented a different party than that of the incumbent governor, which demonstrates an important principle of free elections: There are no guarantees for incumbents or legacy seats.
But there were also serious flaws in the election process. Widespread delays in poll openings, violent disruptions of the voting process, and questions of outright results manipulation in some states left millions of voters disenfranchised. The Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) lack of transparency throughout the election fueled distrust in the results, leading to the announcement of Tinubu’s victory being challenged by opposition parties.
A flourishing Nigeria can be the democratic driver of an African century.
What exactly went wrong in Nigeria? The election campaign was marred by numerous problems, including poor intra-party democracy, persistent political violence, and court rulings that lacked clarity. Low turnout played a role, too. Before the election, there was optimism over new electoral reforms and high levels of voter enthusiasm. Voter registration soared, particularly among young voters—a key demographic, considering that Nigeria’s median age is just 18. Ultimately, almost 10 million new voters were added to the election rolls, which counted nearly 94 million people. Yet on election day, fewer than 25 million Nigerians cast ballots. Why?
In our roles leading a joint international election observation mission organized by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, we had the privilege of watching the Nigerian election process up close and speaking to voters. Many Nigerians spent much of the day waiting 12 to 15 hours to vote. After polling concluded, the sense of disappointment in the process was palpable, and even some supporters of the winning candidate told us they were dismayed by the conduct of the election. At a few polling stations our mission observed, voting was not conducted at all.
In addition to the delayed opening of polling stations—which was a particular problem in opposition strongholds—electoral violence also threatened participation. Attacks on polling stations, theft and destruction of ballot boxes, and attacks on tabulation centers contributed to depressed turnout and voter disenfranchisement, particularly in opposition strongholds in Nigeria’s South-East and South-South zones. This came on the heels of deteriorating security nationwide and months of political violence, with at least 18 assassinations or assassination attempts on candidates and party leaders.
Ongoing currency and fuel shortages complicated electoral preparations and compromised voter access. And inadequate communication by INEC about poll opening delays and their causes fueled confusion and voter distrust. Yet in many ruling party strongholds, according to election observers and civil society organizations, voting started early, turnout was higher, and results were reported more quickly.
Critically, INEC failed to conduct a national stress test of a new electronic transmission system before election day, something our mission’s pre-election assessment had recommended. INEC promised that the presidential election results would be transmitted from polling stations to INEC’s portal on election day—but by the day’s end, only a small share of the results had been uploaded, and polling officers reported numerous issues uploading results to the system. The system’s failure and INEC’s lack of transparency concerning the cause only fueled many citizens’ frustration and skepticism about the quality of the election.
The deficiencies of this election must be addressed quickly, particularly with gubernatorial elections scheduled for March 18 and amid continued challenges to last month’s results. Nigerians are enthusiastic about the democratic process—but like voters everywhere, they need to know their votes count to retain faith in the system.
INEC should immediately complete the upload of all presidential election results to the electronic portal and provide a full, transparent account of what went awry in transmitting those results on election day. It should also provide a list of canceled polling stations on election day. Additionally, INEC and the relevant state election authorities must investigate evidence of manipulation in Rivers and Imo states, where parallel vote tabulation suggests a high likelihood that the reported results are fraudulent.
Nigeria’s security forces must account for their failure to prevent violent voter suppression, especially in areas such as Lagos where concerns were raised well before election day. One Nigerian civil society organization documented 15 election-related attacks in Lagos alone. For example, at least six unidentified assailants attacked polling stations and shot sporadically in Mafoluku neighborhood, where they burned thumb-printed ballot papers. An unidentified armed group attacked voters at polling stations in Itire and Oshodi, setting ballot boxes ablaze and wounding voters unable to flee. In Metta, an unidentified armed group disrupted voting and scattered ballots and ballot boxes in the street. At an INEC collation center in Oshodi, assailants arrived on six motorcycles and four commercial buses, shooting sporadically and causing INEC and party agents to flee.
The perpetrators of election violence must be held accountable. Very few arrests have been made so far, and political parties have not taken any steps to address such behavior among their supporters. Failure to treat this seriously will only normalize impunity and more political violence in the future.
It will be up to the Nigerians themselves to improve the functioning of the democratic process. But the international community has an important role to play in helping the country grapple with these problems. The United States, European Union, and Britain should continue to help strengthen INEC’s capacity, support Nigerian political parties and civil society, and combat spoilers—including by sanctioning the instigators of election-related violence. Nigeria’s friends should press for greater political space and power for Nigeria’s young people and women, who are drastically underrepresented in politics but remain potent resources for democratic renewal.
When the dust settles on the February presidential election, the real heroes will be the citizens—many of them first-time voters—who braved often difficult odds to make their voices heard at the ballot box, as well as civil society groups that engaged in meaningful civic and voter education programs and election monitoring. Nigerian authorities should take urgent action to account for election irregularities and make future elections stronger. The international community cannot afford to give up on Nigeria’s vast democratic promise. Realizing that promise is vital not only for millions of Nigerians, but for the security and prosperity of a future Africa.
Culled from foreignpolicy.com
Green is the president and CEO of the Wilson Center and a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development; Mitchell is the president of the National Democratic Institute and a former U.S. diplomat; Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute and a former counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.