However imperfect, Nigeria’s democratic, peaceful election was a breath of fresh air in a region crippled by coups and persistent democratic backsliding.
On March 1, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Bola Tinubu of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) the winner of the 2023 presidential election.
It said the 70-year-old former Lagos governor won the race with 37 percent of the vote, while his main rival, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Atiku Abubakar, came second with 29 percent. The Labour Party’s Peter Obi, who had become a surprise favourite in the run-up to the election, came third with 25 percent.
Soon after the results were announced, congratulatory messages started to pour in from across Africa and the world. The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo, congratulated President-elect Tinubu on his win. So did the leaders of Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Gambia.
The US Department of State, meanwhile, congratulated not only Tinubu but all Nigerians for what it viewed as a “competitive election” that “represents a new period for Nigerian politics and democracy”. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also issued a statement, commending Nigerian voters “for their participation in the Presidential and National Assembly elections and for their patience and resilience in exercising their democratic rights”.
Despite these waves of praise and celebration, however, the election was hardly without problems.
It recorded the lowest turnout since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, with only 27 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. There were widespread allegations of voter suppression and vote buying as well as a few isolated incidents of violence. Most crucially, both Abubakar and Obi disputed the outcome and vowed to challenge it in Nigeria’s highest appeals court.
Nevertheless, despite being far from perfect, Nigeria’s largely peaceful and somewhat efficiently conducted election – which received a stamp of approval from the African Union Election Observation Mission – was a much-welcomed sight in a region long suffering from military coups and strongmen clinging to power.
The head of the ECOWAS Observer Mission to Nigeria, former Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma, had acknowledged the regional importance of this election days before the polls opened. “Nigeria’s election remains a guide to West Africa,” Koroma said on February 23. “Its failure would spell doom for the sub-region”.
Koromo felt the need to underline the importance of this election because in the days leading up to it, there were growing concerns about the possibility of electoral violence and other likely obstacles to a peaceful transfer of power – and for good reason.
In the last few years, Nigeria has been grappling with severe socio-political and economic challenges, including underfunded public services, police brutality, a stagnant economy, and countrywide insecurity caused by Boko Haram, armed bandits and separatists. Coupled with a long history of military rule, all this raised fears that Nigeria may experience some democratic backsliding in this election cycle.
But despite growing tensions, Nigeria successfully conducted its election and determined its next president without much disturbance. The military stepped in to ensure the security of the polls, but made no move to intervene in the democratic process. Sure, Obi and Abubakar dispute the result, but they appear determined to do so not through violence and populist provocation, but by legal means.
All this stands in striking contrast to the rest of Nigeria’s immediate neighbourhood, where many countries are suffering under military juntas or struggling to hold free and fair elections.
In Sudan, for example, an October 2021 military coup ended the nation’s brief flirtation with democracy, just two years after longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir’s removal from power through a popular revolt. Since the 2021 putsch, the military has frequently cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrations and it stands accused of abducting, raping, torturing and killing protesters.
Similarly in Chad, civil rights groups have been facing violence and threats since the military took control of the country following President Idriss Deby’s death in April 2021. Led by Deby’s son Mahamat Idriss Deby, the coup leaders suspended the constitution, dissolved the parliament and dismissed the government. On October 2022, the military government postponed the country’s planned return to democratic rule for another two years and said it will continue to remain in control until then.
Burkina Faso is also experiencing extreme political instability. Last year, it underwent two military coups in the space of nine months – one that removed President Roch Kabore in January 2022, and another that deposed military leader President Paul-Henri Damiba in September. The military government now in power says the country will not return to civilian rule until at least 2024.
Mali has also experienced two military coups – one in August 2020 and another in May 2021 – and is supposed to restore civilian rule in 2024.
Meanwhile, Guinea’s first democratically-elected leader Alpha Conde was toppled by soldiers in September 2021, following widespread protests against the veteran politician’s controversial move to “reset” his term limit in a constitutional referendum and seek two more terms.
There were also failed coup attempts in Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia in 2022.
So it wouldn’t be wrong to say Nigeria’s neighbourhood is suffocating under a dark cloud of lawlessness, democratic regression and military interventions.
ECOWAS has attempted to defend democracy in the region, albeit without much success, through ostracising military governments and establishing progressive policies and measures. It has suspended Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea from the union indefinitely and imposed travel sanctions on senior leaders and government officials from these countries, presumably until civilian leadership and democracy are restored.
Furthermore, it has twice attempted to introduce two-term presidential limits – which are already in place in Nigeria – for its member states, first in 2015 and then in 2021, to counter the growing trend of “third-termism” and advance regional stability. Regrettably, it has failed to secure a unanimous agreement.
In this context, the election in Nigeria was a breath of fresh air. Granted, the polls were not free of sporadic violence, long delays and technical problems. But as the head of the African Union Election Observation Mission, former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, said in a February 28 statement, the “electoral environment was generally peaceful despite isolated incidents of violence” and “voting and counting took place in an open and transparent atmosphere in the presence of observers, party agents and media”.
Indeed, the political atmosphere before and after the elections has served to confirm the determination shared by most Nigerians to preserve civilian rule and strengthen democracy.
On March 6, for example, Abubakar led hundreds of PDP supporters in a peaceful march to INEC’s offices in Abuja, where he delivered a petition and reiterated his party’s decision to challenge the results of the presidential election. Abubakar’s apparent determination to observe the rule of law as he disputes the election result is confirmation of the confidence Nigeria’s leading opposition parties have in the country’s democratic processes and institutions.
So sure, there was much that was wrong with Nigeria’s election. But despite all the controversies and disputes, Nigeria successfully conducted a democratic election and presented the region with an (albeit imperfect) example to look up to. And for this, it should be applauded.