On Saturday, 25 February, 2023, Nigerians will vote in an election to select the successor to the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari. This will be the seventh consecutive cycle of presidential elections since the country returned to civil rule in May 1999; the 10th since the onset of the presidential system of government in 1979.
Nigeria’s start to the presidential system of government is by no means auspicious. The military supervised the first ballot in August 1979, which installed Shehu Shagari as Nigeria’s first elected president. The election ended up before the Supreme Court, establishing what would become a tradition of what the Economist delicately called ‘democracy by court orders’.
Four years later, on the last day of December 1983, soldiers led by one Muhammadu Buhari, then a Major-General in the Nigerian Army, overthrew the government, a mere three months after the inauguration of a second term following Shagari’s re-election in August 1983.
In June 1993, following a ten year-long interregnum of military rule, Nigeria’s generals, this time led by Ibrahim Babangida – a self-styled military president – nullified the outcome of the third presidential ballot, won by businessman, Moshood Abiola.
A six year-long hiatus ensued at the end of which the country returned eventually to government founded on electoral legitimacy in 1979. The credibility of elections since then has been uneven, with a nadir reached in 2007, when then chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Maurice Iwu, in a conspiracy with then outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, conjured up fictional numbers to install Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as president in an election described by Foreign Affairs as ‘excessively rigged’.
Acutely embarrassed by how he came into office, President Yar’Adua established an inquiry into the election that brought him to power. Chaired by a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mohammed Uwais, the panel established the existence of twin cultures of violence and election rigging that characterised elections in Nigeria, underscoring the origins of the perennial whiff of political illegitimacy that has dogged government and leadership in the country for a long time. Since then, the conduct of elections in Nigeria has made only marginal progress.
By 2011, a new chairman of the INEC, Attahiru Jega, began reforms designed to close the loopholes that made election rigging such profitable enterprise in Nigeria. Under him, the INEC established a baseline election register in 2011, which helped to reduce the number of elections that ended up before election petition tribunals by nearly half. Jega improved voter identification with the introduction of a permanent voters’ card (PVC). Voting administration improved to the extent that in 2015, the presidential election went unchallenged and the proportion of elections challenged in court dropped for the first time in Nigeria’s history beneath 50% of the contested seats.
Many of these gains were frittered away by the current leadership of INEC in 2019, resulting in a rise in election petitions to the scale seen in 2011 but an unusual confluence of factors make the 2023 elections arguably the most unique in Nigeria’s history of presidential elections, presenting the country with an opportunity that could be positive or not, depending on how it harnesses some factors.
First, this is the first election in Nigeria in which the military will not be on the ballot or in the background as such. Muhammadu Buhari, a retired two-star general, who is term-limited, will be in May 2023, bringing the curtains down on a long and chequered line of soldiers at the highest levels of politics and state-craft in Nigeria. This record is at best undistinguished and has left the country in many ways worse off than when the soldiers first arrived on the scene in 1966. Of the soldiers who were on the scene in 1966, Buhari is the last to leave the public stage at the end of nearly six decades of unbroken dominance of Nigeria’s public space. The symbolic retirement of this generation could mark the beginning of a genuine search by the country for more deliberative solutions to nation building where in the past the military had favoured solutions that lay in the barrel of the gun.
Second, 2023 will mark the first time in a quarter of a century that the leading candidate in a Nigerian presidential election is not a soldier and the first in two decades in which Muhammadu Buhari will not be on the ballot. The question has always been asked whether Buhari’s cult following in the North could find a new home when he eventually quits office. In these upcoming elections, those who ask this question will hopefully find their answers. The upshot is that Buhari’s traditional strongholds in North-West and North-East Nigeria will witness a huge contest between the leading candidates to claim the mantle of successor to his electoral magic. It is well possible that these regions could hold the key to the outcome if the vote is credible.
Third, with the three main candidates representing the three major regions at Independence – one from the East, another from the West and another from the Northern region – 2023 marks a return to the original fault-lines that were present at the creation of Nigeria or a return of tri-podal politics in Nigeria. This on its own could be challenging for the country and one question to be answered in this election could be whether the country has the imagination and resilience to find pathways beyond these traditional fissures.
Fourth, 2023 appears to be the first time in which polling is a significant factor in the narrative of the campaigns. One of the most recent polls appeared willing to wager on conclusions despite a cumulative 53% of respondents who were either undecided or refused to disclose their voting intentions. Another one chose its polling sample from a demographic 2,384 owners of smartphones in a country in which only about 44% reportedly own such a device. Yet another concluded, despite high rates of undecided and unwilling respondents, that a presidential run-off is likely. Despite valiant efforts by wannabe pollsters, what seems clear is that the methodology of both sampling and extrapolations by most of the polls have been characterised by a rather uneven quality and, in many cases it seems also, by a confirmation bias.
Fifth, in these elections, the INEC proposes to deploy the Bi-Modal Voter Accreditation System, B-VAS, as its solution to Nigeria’s history of data-free voting. The B-VAS device accredits voters, counts them, and can digitally transmit the results from a polling unit to the INEC central collation. The result transmission capability of B-VAS is, however, substantially dependent on the existence of broadband infrastructure, which cannot be guaranteed in nearly half of the landmass of Nigeria. Where there is broadband hunger, then it requires safe and secure transportation to a location that offers broadband. With underlying insecurity, the promise of the B-VAS as the cure-all solution to election malpractice in Nigeria may be more bluster than believable.
These factors may shape the underlying landscape of balloting and outcomes but they by no means exhaust the factors that make the forthcoming vote so unique in Nigeria’s history. Not to be forgotten is the reality of widespread violence all over the country which has blighted campaigning in many places and is likely to make voting, counting, and collation quite hazardous in many parts of the country. President Buhari is already a huge factor in the ballot with his insistence that the Central Bank’s currency reform should carry forward through the election season. The voting will take place in an atmosphere of hardship and restiveness. The last man standing after all have fallen prey to the starvation of cash could well be declared winner.
A lawyer and a teacher, Prof. Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, is the former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.