Nigeria 2023: Will Nigerians see a peaceful transition of power?

By Harry Clynch
Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 09:40

Voters line up to cast their votes during Presidential and National Assembly election in Yola Nigeria, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Next year, Nigerians will go to the polls in what some regard as the most significant election for decades. While the country’s elections have long been tense affairs, often accompanied by violent clashes, Nigeria is on the brink of achieving three consecutive peaceful transitions of power – something that has not happened since its independence in 1960.

This would be a significant moment not only for Nigeria but for the wider region. A successful, peaceful election in the continent’s largest democracy and the economy would send an important message at a time when many believe Africa’s democratic processes are in decline – particularly given the ongoing instability in Burkina Faso after January’s coup d’état.

However, in the run-up to February’s vote, experts fear that the risk of a disrupted election is increasing.

Violent disruption

Audu Bulama Bukarti is a prominent Nigerian public intellectual and human rights lawyer, who is also a Senior Fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. He recently released a paper on the security risks to Nigeria’s 2023 elections and is particularly concerned about the threat posed by extremist groups such as Boko Haram. Bukarti tells The Africa Report that several non-state armed groups may seek to disrupt the democratic process through violent action.

“Boko Haram, for example, is a jihadist group which is claiming to fight for Islam, and which has the objective of supplanting the Nigerian government and replacing it with an Islamic government,” he says. “They define citizens as enemies when certain conditions are met, and one of these is if citizens participate in a democracy.”

There are also the bandit groups, some of which may be available to the highest bidder […]

Teniola T. Tayo, the economic intelligence lead at Nigeria’s Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience (OSPRE), is also concerned that the Nigerian state “is currently facing a lot of contestations from many different angles”. Aside from the threat posed by Boko Haram, “there are other violent extremist groups, such as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), that have a mandate to oppose the state”, she says. “There are also the bandit groups, some of which may be available to the highest bidder, the violent secessionists, as well as general crime and violence. All the ingredients for a serious crisis are there.”

Given that the frequency and intensity of Boko Haram attacks have increased, and as the Islamic State recently announced a new leader, Bukarti says: “Nigeria’s security forces need to step up efforts on the ground.”

Legitimacy undermined

This raises the direct risk of militants seeking to attack polling stations or threaten citizens wishing to vote with violence. However, Bukarti also fears that extremist groups could indirectly undermine the election’s integrity. He points out that militants have already launched attacks in the north of the Borno and Yobe states, violence which has led to internal displacement of 3 million Nigerians. Should these internally displaced people (IDPs) be disenfranchised as a result, this could undermine the election’s legitimacy.

“Under Nigerian electoral law, you can only vote in your polling unit of registration, but many of those that are being displaced registered in the last registration cycle, before the 2019 elections. Now they have been displaced, where can they vote? This automatically means that the millions of Nigerians that are currently displaced from their homes have been disenfranchised,” Bukarti says.

Even worse, this displacement could swing the election one way or the other. The 2015 election was won by fewer than 2.5 million votes. The last election was won by fewer than 4 million votes. If Nigeria’s 3 million internally displaced citizens are unable to vote, and if 2023 brings a similar margin of victory, there could be serious question marks over the winner’s legitimacy. In his paper, Bukarti suggests that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should expand its voting system for the internally displaced across the country, to ensure as many people as possible can participate in the election.

That may be difficult in practice, not least because INEC would need to cooperate with political parties which have previously resisted similar moves. During the last election, the main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party, opposed the establishment of voting centres on the grounds they were an attempt to rig the election. Bukarti says the INEC should move to assuage these concerns by creating a “transparent” system in which “everyone knows how many IDPs are being registered on a weekly basis”.

However, it’s far from obvious if the political backing for such a solution is there. Initiatives designed to promote electoral integrity have failed to achieve a bipartisan consensus, especially because the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has also accused its opponents of trying to rig the result. The APC has refused to support the electronic transmission of election results, suggesting that the technology would be open to manipulation. This division is likely to make the task of successfully conducting the election more difficult.

Fake news

Another risk to the election’s legitimacy comes from the dissemination of fake news on social media. Bukarti notes that “technology, social media, and the internet have played a big role in consolidating Nigeria’s democracy”, but that “it did come with lots of risks as well, including flaming the embers of division through the spread of disinformation, misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories”.

Tech giants, such as Twitter and Facebook, have committed to upholding electoral integrity, but questions remain as to whether they have the capacity to do so. In the case of Nigeria, much of the misinformation and disinformation is produced in local languages. However, until recently, Facebook had no capacity to monitor content in Yoruba or Igbo, and even now, it is unclear how many officials they have dedicated to overseeing the activities of over 30 million users.

If you go on Facebook today, you will see significant amounts of disinformation related to the election […]

“If you don’t have in-house experts who speak the local languages if you don’t have experts who understand the context, and experts who can judge what constitutes hate speech or speech that can lead to violence, then, unfortunately, you will hardly be able to crack down on hate speech and conspiracy theories,” Bukarti says. “If you go on Facebook today, you will see significant amounts of disinformation related to the election that have been there for months with no action taken.”

To complicate matters more, the Nigerian government has had a difficult relationship with social media providers – particularly Twitter, which was banned for seven months earlier this year. Some, therefore, question whether the authorities will be able to cooperate with these same providers to ensure a democratically sound election.

Economic weakness

Further aggravating a tense situation is the fact that these elections are coming at a time of considerable economic difficulties. Inflation is currently running at over 20%. Unemployment is estimated to be around 33%. The Naira has declined by almost 75% in response to the country’s stark shortage of US dollars, a shortage which has also been a major drag on economic growth. Tayo fears that these issues could feed into greater instability around election time.

“The economic crisis can affect public opinion in several ways, especially if any economic disasters occur before the election,” Tayo tells The Africa Report. “There’s the scarcity of foreign exchange and the growing debt pressures that are already being felt and monitored in the public domain. Instability can occur in the form of protests, especially if someone instrumentalises the issues to mobilise support for or against candidates.”

Tayo further notes that these economic problems are intertwined with security issues surrounding the activities of extremist groups and other criminal organisations. “Election security can be affected by factors, including the operations of violent extremists, bandits, and other criminal actors,” she says. “High unemployment is linked to this, as it makes Nigerians more vulnerable to [being recruited by] political actors inciting violence.”

A delicate situation

As the current tensions indicate, Nigeria remains a young democracy, with fragile institutions. Democratic processes are even more fragile in the context of increased extremism, the prominence of misinformation, and economic turbulence.

Whether the country can navigate these challenges successfully, and experience another peaceful transition of power, remains to be seen. Either way, Nigeria’s 2023 election is set to be a major milestone in the history of democratic politics in West Africa.

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