Nigeria’s latest elections heighten the country’s need for a reset of its democracy. Nigeria’s two dominant parties abandoned an informal pact that has rotated power between north and south, papering over the deeper, wider problem of ensuring real political inclusion among Nigeria’s disparate regions and communities. The recent national and state-level votes failed to deliver anguished Nigerians the promise of wider voter participation and transparent election results. Still, the campaigns and voting contained seeds for critical change that now must be cultivated by Nigeria’s newly elected government; its courageous, pro-democracy civil society; its vast, energized youth population; and its partners.

Young Nigerians stand on a campaign van to watch a rally for the third-party candidate in February’s presidential election. Nigerian youth, a majority of the population, are fueling demands for a more responsive democracy. (Taiwo Aina/The New York Times)
Young Nigerians stand on a campaign van to watch a rally for the third-party candidate in February’s presidential election. Nigerian youth, a majority of the population, are fueling demands for a more responsive democracy. (Taiwo Aina/The New York Times)

Like many states of the Global South, Nigeria’s task of political inclusion is complicated by its founding — not as an expression of its residents’ desires, but as a profitmaking machine for an invading European empire. Since independence in 1960, Nigerian governments have struggled to build public trust that the state would share power and its benefits among all citizens, across the country’s hundreds of ethnic, religious and language communities. Nigeria’s early decades of openly authoritarian and military rule, including endemic corruption, often sowed mistrust instead — a mistrust that for many has only been deepened by the February presidential election.

When Nigeria shifted to elected civilian rule in 1999, the two dominant parties papered over the lack of political inclusion with an informal agreement: They would rotate their presidential nominees between north and south, and balance their tickets, Muslim and Christian. So Nigeria’s presidency would rotate between the country’s biggest geographic and religious constituencies. Yet real power has remained with men whom Nigerians have called the “kingmakers” or “the class of 1966” — a gerontocracy of former army officers who led Nigeria’s first coup d’état and subsequent military governments, and those men’s protegés, military and civilian.

Nigerians’ needs were never well served by concentrations of power and wealth in a rivalrous, corrupt oligarchy. After 24 years of such top-down civilian rule, the gap between governments’ performance and the needs of a swelling, younger population has only widened. Half of Nigeria’s 220 million people are now under 18, and recent surveys find as many as 73 percent of Nigerians saying that their constrained futures in Nigeria make them ready to seek those futures abroad. Young Nigerians face widened extremism; organized crime, including kidnappings; and unemployment that hovers above 30 percent overall and over 40 percent among youth. Conservatively estimated, deaths from Nigeria’s conflicts and political violence now approach 100,000 over the past 12 years. Emigration of young Nigerians to the United Kingdom alone trebled from 2019 to 2021.

February’s Election: A Moment of Truth?

Nigerians approached the February and March elections with high hopes of creating change. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) added nearly 10 million people, most younger than 35, to Nigeria’s voter rolls. It issued new biometric voter identification cards and created a computerized network that promised immediate collation of the vote results from nearly 177,000 polling places nationwide. But on election day, large parts of these systems broke down. From 94 million registered voters, only 24.9 million votes were recorded — a record low percentage. The irregularities now feed arguments over INEC’s declaration that former Lagos state governor, Bola Ahmed Tinubu won the race (with a reported 37 percent of votes). His rivals, Atiku Abubakar (29 percent) and Peter Obi (25 percent), petitioned courts for the election to be rerun on the grounds of irregularities.  

Separate teams of African, European and U.S. election observers cited varied causes for the low vote count: polling places that opened late (or not at all); attacks on election sites, notably in areas of support for opposition parties; general insecurity; fuel shortages; and a paralyzing scarcity of cash before and on election day (caused by authorities’ transition to new banknotes) that prevented many Nigerians from spending time and transportation money to vote. Elections last month for 28 state governorships saw fewer of the technical problems but increased violence and vote-buying, according to news accounts and the Nigeria-based, nonprofit Center for Democracy and Development.

Still, even these troubled elections simmered with Nigerians’ democratic energies. The candidacy of former governor Peter Obi was in part a youth insurgency against the domination of the two main parties. No third candidate in the six elections since military rule had won more than 7.5 percent of votes, but Obi’s vow of reforms to improve governance and accountability drew 25 percent. Energized young voters in Lagos state, an ethnic Yoruba stronghold and home of Tinubu, swung the majority of votes there to Obi, an ethnic Igbo — a striking repudiation of old appeals to communal identity as the basis for Nigerian politics. The pattern of results in both national and state elections showed voters’ readiness to oppose incumbents and suggest that “voter’s decisions are linked to the performance of individuals rather than parties” and to a growing emphasis on “competence and personality” of candidates over old party loyalties, the Center for Democracy and Development noted in a recent analysis. The results “should provide momentum” for further challenges to the long-dominant two parties, it said.

Nigerians have repeatedly shown in other ways their readiness to work for better democracy and governance. Thousands of young Nigerians organized the grassroots #EndSARS movement against police brutality beginning in 2017 and have broadened their activism into other movements for change, including the recent election campaign. A telling result of the February and March votes is that the broad public disappointment with their conduct did not ignite violence. Rather, candidates and political parties are seeking justice in the courts — an affirmation of their commitment to nonviolence and to using the institutions of a democracy as the way to consolidate it.

Steps to a Better Democracy

Barring a contrary ruling by the Supreme Court, which Nigerian analysts and history suggest is unlikely, Tinubu will be inaugurated president in a few weeks. Before and after that point, Nigerians and allies of democracy can take several steps to help Nigeria lay solid foundations for the democratic renewal that is vital to meet the country’s needs. President Muhammadu Buhari took some steps in the past year by ensuring the full funding of the INEC election authority and the professional conduct of military and security personnel. By executive order, he created a Presidential Transition Council to facilitate his handover of power to his successor. Further steps to meet Nigerians’ democratic aspirations include these:

  • While President-elect Tinubu faces doubts among many Nigerians over the legitimacy of his mandate, one of his best ways of confronting them could be to commit quickly and concretely to implementing the full recommendations made in 2008 by a high-level Electoral Reform Committee headed by former Chief Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais. Nigerian scholars and civic advocates for clean elections continue to urge the completion of the Uwais committee’s recommendations. These include improvements to the logistics of elections and the independence of INEC, the election authority.
  • Eminent Nigerian civil society leaders in the USIP-backed Nigerian Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance have urged a broad dialogue as a process to rebuild trust and national cohesion. An inclusive dialogue, among Nigeria’s political and communal constituencies and civil society as well as government, can build the consensus required to implement electoral and democratic reforms.
  • A particular, vital reform — one of several from the 2008 Uwais committee singled out recently by Nigerian prodemocracy practitioners — is the creation of an Electoral Offenses Commission to investigate election-related crimes, including fraud, voter suppression and murder.
  • Also recommended by the Uwais committee is the creation or strengthening of institutions to buttress Nigeria’s democratic framework and culture. A Political Parties Regulatory Commission could support the development, and the better conduct, of political parties. Nigeria’s existing national commissions to defend human rights and investigate corruption should be strengthened.
  • On its part, the United States and Nigeria’s other international partners should reaffirm their commitment to supporting Nigerians’ consolidation of democracy through the strengthening of Nigeria’s electoral system and allied institutions with roles in the conduct of elections, such as the security agencies, financial institutions and civil society.

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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