After years of mixed progress and setbacks for democratization, Africa needs stronger advances in building the more democratic, effective governance vital to stability and peace for its 1.4 billion people, the world’s fastest-growing population. Nigerians, nearly one-sixth of all Africans, will choose a new president next week in what may be Africa’s most consequential election of 2023. A central demand amid this campaign is a better inclusion of Nigeria’s hundreds of ethnic, religious and other communities in elections and governance. For 200 million Nigerians, and for their allies in strengthening their democracy, broadening political inclusion will remain a vital task regardless of who wins this vote.

Voters line up as Nigeria elected President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. As they elect his successor, Nigerians agree on making their democracy more inclusive of their many communal groups. They are debating how to do it.
Voters line up as Nigeria elected President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015. As they elect his successor, Nigerians agree on making their democracy more inclusive of their many communal groups. They are debating how to do it. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)

Beginning in 1999, as Nigeria ended military rule, its main parties built a tradition to at least signal political inclusion across Nigeria’s broadest communal divide. That is, each nominated one Christian and one Muslim for the offices of president and vice president. And in each electoral cycle, parties rotated the regional origin of their candidates between north and south. But for this election, the two largest parties abandoned elements of these practices — and that has triggered thunderous debate. Many Nigerians say the abandonment of these traditions has set back political inclusion. Others argue that the old arrangements are outdated — that Nigeria needs new practices to ensure fuller inclusion of disparate communities.

The frustrations of communities that feel excluded from power in Nigeria have deepened what already was a growing atmosphere of division in Nigeria’s politics, not unlike the domestic polarizations in Europe, North America, Brazil, India and elsewhere. In Nigeria, this shift coincides with a surge of political participation, and dissent, among young Nigerians.

A Vital Election for Africa 

This election is vital for Africa — and for U.S., European and other interests — not least because of the urgency of stabilizing Nigeria. The country’s widened upheavals — including the Boko Haram insurgency, farmer-herder conflicts, secessionist movements and industrial-scale organized crime — have uprooted millions of people and increased migration to Europe and North America. Nigeria is vastly the heavyweight in a region where failed governance has bred extremist violence, displacing 2.5 million people over a decade. A USIP study group recently identified “improvements in governance” as vital to a new U.S. priority: bolstering stability in coastal West Africa under the 2019 Global Fragility Act. And Nigeria’s ability to revitalize a democracy — through respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary and religious freedom for all communities — will be central to the United States’ proclaimed aim of building an unprecedented U.S.-Africa partnership for the 21st century. 

Nigeria is the first of 15 African nations this year holding presidential or legislative elections. Africans have advanced their consistent demands for democracy with steps such as peaceful, more transparent elections in Kenya and Zambia in the past 18 months, and Sudan’s resilient, grassroots campaign demanding a restoration of elected, civilian governance. 

Yet democratization has been set back continent-wide. Ruling elites in 16 countries have diluted or abolished constitutional term limits for presidents. Failings of ineffective or authoritarian-minded civilian leaderships to meet their peoples’ basic needs (as measured, for example by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance) have opened doors to many of Africa’s seven recent military coups, plus other coup attempts. Africa’s democratic setbacks are part of a global phenomenon, according to measurements by Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

Nigeria Seeks Democracy, Unity

Nigerians carry the burden of many multi-ethnic states forged by colonial rule. Of course, empires did not shape or govern a Nigeria or Iraq or Myanmar to cultivate egalitarian democracy among their disparate ethnic, linguistic or religious groups — but rather manipulated communal differences and ruled by force to maximize their own power and wealth. Six decades after most African colonies won independence from European rule, they still struggle to convert its undemocratic norms into inclusive democracies that meet citizens’ (rather than rulers’) needs and that include all communal groups in those benefits of citizenship. In a pattern typical of many such countries, Nigeria suffered military rule for 27 of its first 40 years of independence and a traumatic civil war.

Nigerians now have elected their governments for nearly a quarter-century through parties still defined largely by rival communal identities. Elections have escalated into a form of political warfare over control of government resources. Still, Nigerians used their “ticket balancing” tradition to promote at least minimal political inclusion between Muslims and Christians. 

This time, to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner, both main parties nominated Muslim candidates and dropped parts of the old practice. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress nominated a Muslim vice presidential running mate to its presidential nominee, Bola Tinubu. That step raised criticisms that a “Muslim-Muslim ticket” risks leaving Christian communities without an advocate atop the government. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party chose another northerner, Atiku Abubakar, to succeed Buhari, dropping the old idea of regional rotation despite southerners’ protests. Debates over the value of the ticket-balancing tradition have raged throughout this campaign, underscoring the urgency that many Nigerians feel around broadening real political inclusion.

Polarization and Exclusion

Yet Nigeria’s problem of exclusion goes far deeper and wider than the disagreements over ticket balancing. Young Nigerians have long been so frustrated by what they see as their own exclusion, and that of minority communities, that they have abstained in large numbers from voting in recent elections. Since 2020, however, young Nigerians have re-energized, notably through mass public protests known as the #ENDSARS movement. The vigorous demands of youth are both a challenge to the system and a resource for the kind of change that is needed. The renewed activism of young Nigerians also sharpens the dangers from deepened political polarization — a mix that heightens risks of violence after next week’s vote.

A particular failure of political inclusion is of women. The World Economic Forum’s 2022 Gender Gap Index rated  Nigeria 136th among 146 countries worldwide in providing equal opportunities for women, with an especially low, and worsening, score in the inclusion of women in political leadership.

Frustrations over political exclusion, notably among youth, have helped fuel the rise of Nigeria’s most prominent third-party presidential candidate, former Anambra state Governor Peter Obi. This election cycle has seen a deepening of communal polarization, with voters pushed to focus on candidates’ religious or other group identities, rather than their competence or character. Unfortunately, in Nigeria as elsewhere, when political elites mobilize support through polarization, they simultaneously complicate and hinder the pragmatism, the focus on practical problems and the compromises that are required for democratic governance.

Vital Next Steps

Of course, Nigeria’s immediate need is an election that its citizens will feel has been fairly run — something that its Independent National Electoral Commission and other institutions have managed these 20-plus years. In this moment of polarization, Nigeria’s judiciary must be ready to backstop the commission in ensuring electoral justice and buttressing citizens’ confidence in both the election result and the independence of the judicial branch. Political parties must oppose violence, especially by their own hardline members who promote it.

Regardless of the outcome of the February 25 vote, Nigeria’s should not try to rely simply on its tradition of Christian-Muslim ticket-balancing as a guarantee of political inclusion. Instead, the next government should join political forces, intellectuals and civil society, including its youth activists, in shaping durable new norms and institutions to advance the inclusion of a much wider web of groups — ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, women, youth and other marginalized groups — across not only federal governance, but across the 36 states and hundreds of local governments.

As across much of the Global South, Nigeria must build its democracy on foundations weakened by the manifestly anti-democratic legacies of its authoritarian, colonial birth. After years of military rule, Nigeria has built democratic forms, but has let governance serve elites rather than a citizenry that remains impoverished, abused by violence and excluded from power. With Nigeria at the center of Africa’s exploding population, and with youth demanding change and invited to extremisms, the margins for error have vanished. Both Nigerians and their partners in building democracy should celebrate the near miracle that, amid the pressures, Nigerian youth have leapt back into democratic politics to peacefully pursue the changes they need. They are seeking partnership — and we must provide it — as they work toward the goal of which Nigerians sing in the final line of their national anthem: “To build a nation where peace and justice shall reign.”

Chris Kwaja is USIP’s interim country manager in Nigeria and a senior lecturer at the Center for Peace and Security Studies, Modibbo Adama University in Yola. 

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