Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari says he expects a credible election to choose his successor in just 10 weeks. A credible, publicly accepted result and a peaceful transfer of power could help consolidate democracy in Africa’s most populous country following democratic setbacks in the region, notably seven coups in 26 months in the Sahel and West Africa. Buhari, first elected in 2015, is completing his second term in office, the constitutional maximum, and is to hand power to his elected successor in May — an extension of democracy that Buhari has said he wants to ensure as part of his legacy to the country.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at USIP December 16 after participating in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. He underscored his vow to extend Nigeria’s democratic rule by handing power next year to his elected successor.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari speaks at USIP December 16 after participating in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. He underscored his vow to extend Nigeria’s democratic rule by handing power next year to his elected successor.

The Stakes for Nigeria’s Election

Buhari spoke to an audience of U.S. policymakers, diplomats and other foreign policy specialists at USIP following last week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — and a day before his 80th birthday. He underscored what he and independent analysts have described as a consolidation of elections as a basis for Nigerian democracy. Buhari’s own first election as president, in 2015, was a victory over the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan — and marked the first time that a Nigerian president transferred power to a successor who had defeated him at the polls.

Nigeria’s February 25 election will choose not only a president but the federal legislature, plus governors and legislatures in 31 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

“Although democracy has proven to be fragile in a number of West African states, the success of Nigeria’s next elections will demonstrate the resilience and strength of democracy in Africa’s most populous nation,” said Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa and a USIP senior advisor. “Nigeria’s continued commitment to democratic elections and constitutional principles will also serve as a source of encouragement for citizens and leaders supporting democratic transitions in fragile or authoritarian states in other parts of Africa.”

Domestically, the vote represents an opportunity to strengthen and extend democracy in a country that suffered 30 years of military rule (including by Buhari, then an army general) early in its history, USIP West Africa expert Oge Onubogu wrote earlier this year. That opportunity is fueled by “a wave of civic engagement among young Nigerians,” she noted.

Young Nigerians have driven a surge in voter registrations, according to Professor Mahmood Yakubu, who chairs the Independent Nigerian Election Commission (INEC). Since the most recent nationwide elections, in 2019, when 84 million people registered to vote, “over 12 million [additional] citizens registered” for the coming election, Yakubu told USIP last month. “Out of the 12 million, 71.4 percent of them are young Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 34,” he said.

Credible Elections vs. Widened Instability

A credible vote in February is critical to validate the energized democratic aspirations of young Nigerians, Onubogu has noted, and to show that democracy offers Nigeria a path out of its violent conflicts, crime and instability. While President Buhari notes progress by Nigerian security forces in pushing back the 13-year-old Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, Nigeria has seen heightened violence overall, including that of Boko Haram and affiliates of the Islamic State movement, attacks by the Biafra movement of the southeast, herd-farmer conflicts, and waves of banditry, including mass kidnappings of schoolchildren.

In a conversation onstage with Buhari, Carson pressed him on whether the INEC election authority is prepared to manage a credible election amid the country’s recent instability. “I would say they are, because I made sure they were given all the resources they asked for,” Buhari replied. “I don’t want any excuse that they were denied funds by the government. … INEC has not complained, and certainly they could not complain, that they were denied resources to make sure that their infrastructure is firmly in place.”

Carson noted a string of recent attacks by gunmen or bombers reported by local authorities or INEC on several offices of the election commission. Buhari acknowledged two such attacks and played down their significance, saying, “I think, in relative terms, the security is good.” The ACLED research project last week said that four recent attacks on INEC, amid other nationwide violence, have “raised concerns about the safety of electoral officials, as well as the feasibility of holding elections across the country.” Buhari noted successful state-level elections since last year in Anambra, Osun and Ekiti states as evidence that Nigerians and INEC will be able to overcome the threats to February’s vote from insurgent or extremist groups.

Democracy in Africa: Nigeria’s Role

Before and during last week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the U.S. government underscored its commitment to strengthening democracy in Africa following recent setbacks, including seven military coups over 26 months. President Biden last week appointed Carson as his special presidential representative for implementation of U.S. initiatives agreed with African leaders at the summit.

As U.S. and international policymakers seek ways to advance democracy, USIP Africa expert Joseph Sany and others have underscored the critical role of regional powers such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, and African institutions such as the African Union and the continent’s regional bodies, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), headquartered in Nigeria.

At USIP, Buhari reiterated his frequent description of himself as “a converted democrat” since 1983, when he helped lead an army coup in overthrowing an elected government. He repeated his assurances that Nigeria aims to help ‘‘improve the quality of governance in the West African subregion, where the survival of democracy is currently challenged.” For the current election, Buhari expressed confidence that improvements to Nigeria’s elections, plus “the observatory roles of the international community,” can yield a vote that ensures “the acceptability of the outcome to the contestants and political parties.”

The European Union, which monitors elections internationally, last year praised technical improvements in INEC’s administration of elections, including the commission’s voter accreditation system and “efficient electronic transmission of polling unit results to INEC’s results viewing portal” online. It underscored a continuing need for Nigeria to investigate and prevent the buying of votes, for example in Ekiti state.

“Our commitment … is that we are going to conduct a transparent, free and fair election,” said Yakubu, the INEC chairman. “But INEC alone can’t do it; we need the support of all … the political parties in particular.” He added: “I would like to appeal particularly to the political class to join hands with the commission in ensuring a transparent process.”

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