On Saturday, up to 94 million voters in Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy will cast their ballots to elect lawmakers and the president. It’s the seventh election since the end of military rule in 1999, and an exercise involving enormous expenditure and logistics, keenly watched across the continent and beyond.
Nigeria faces a host of serious challenges: growing insecurity, a struggling economy, massive debt, deep poverty and a corrupt political class – and this moment is genuinely seen as a potential turning point, with hopes that a fair and credible poll may alter the country’s trajectory for the better, allowing its youthful, creative and entrepreneurial energy to be harnessed for the good of all. Alternatively, it could lead Nigeria towards a very difficult future.
Nigeria is regionally dominant and a keystone state in Africa. Matthew Page, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, describes the election as a chance for Nigeria’s democratic process “to send a proof-of-life message to the world”. With democracy in retreat across the continent, some analysts say a good election in Nigeria would revitalise the hopes of democratic reformers in other countries, with many of the issues resonating elsewhere.
Everyone recognises that the next decade is vital for the country, which is forecast to become the third-most populous in the world, behind India and China, by 2045.
The most obvious are security, with violent crime that was once restricted to more marginal areas now reaching into major urban centres, and the economy, as most people are considerably worse off now than they were in 2015 when the outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari, started the first of his two terms. Corruption is also an issue for voters.
In recent weeks, a self-inflicted crisis after a poorly executed effort by authorities to replace the country’s banknotes has brought acute hardship and inconvenience. With naira currency so scarce, the poorest simply cannot buy basic foodstuffs or travel to vote. Many are adapting, but only slowly. In the meantime, “people are cashless and desperate … That is adding to tensions around the poll,” says Nnamdi Obasi, the International Crisis Group’s Nigeria-based expert.
A lot. One big difference is the size of the electorate, with 10 million more registered voters than in 2019, including many who are very young. A second big change from earlier polls is that the two main parties that have dominated Nigerian politics for decades – the ruling All Progressives Congress and the People’s Democratic party – have been challenged by a third credible contender: Peter Obi is an energetic 61-year-old who appears a generation younger than his main rivals, Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar, who are in their 70s and look increasingly frail. More than anything, Obi represents a new kind of politics, reaching out beyond Nigeria’s sectarian and ethnic divides with the promise of dynamic, clean and efficient governance. Whether he will be able to fulfil that if he wins is another question. A final difference is new voting technology, which should cut down on rigging.
Many opinion polls have given Obi a substantial lead, and there is no doubt that the wealthy businessman turned politician has run a very effective campaign. However, analysts and ruling party officials say Obi may have difficulty converting “virtual” support on social media and among the young into enough votes to beat the vast patronage networks, deep pockets and powerful political organisation of his rivals.
Much depends on turnout, which has been woefully low in recent elections. Last year, before Obi launched his campaign, a survey found that just 39% of Nigerians felt close to a political party, a sharp decline compared with 2015. If more than two voters in five reach the voting booths, this will be seen as a boost to Obi’s chances, possibly signalling a wave of support.
Official results could take up to five days to be announced after the polls close, but the turnout should become clearer much earlier, along with some of the counts. This should give a sense within 36 to 48 hours of who will lead Nigeria.
Nigerian electoral law makes a runoff unlikely, as the winning candidate needs only a simple majority, provided they get 25% of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 36 states.