Was the Nigerian election rigged?

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

Political Capital

By Nic Cheeseman

Posted on March 24, 2023 16:25

 © A man cast his vote during the Nigeria Presidential election at a polling station at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja on February 25, 2023.  (Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)
A man cast his vote during the Nigeria Presidential election at a polling station at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja on February 25, 2023. (Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Even before the Nigerian presidential election results were released, the process had been denounced as flawed by some political leaders. After the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) subsequently declared that the ruling party’s Bola Tinubu had won, few were surprised that his two main rivals, Peter Obi and Atiku Abubakar, announced they would lodge petitions against the results with the Court of Appeal. Both had good grounds for suspicion.

During the campaign, Tinubu appeared to be struggling. Unable to fully “inherit” the vote of his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, successive opinion polls showed him in second place – with Obi often in the lead. Contrary to these projections, the official results gave Tinubu almost 8.8 million votes – 1.8 million more than Abubakar and 2.7 million more than Obi.

This raised serious questions about how Tinubu had been able to win a commanding victory from such a precarious position. Then there was the election itself. Far too many polling stations opened late, disenfranchising voters who wouldn’t or couldn’t queue all day.

According to the Yiaga domestic monitoring group, INEC officials arrived at 7:30 AM – when they were due to start setting up – in only 27% of cases.

The Centre for Democracy and Development also identified a range of problematic developments, including vote buying, violence and voter suppression. Worse still, Yiaga found significant discrepancies between their estimates and the official results in Rivers and Imo state.

Along with the fact that the digital portal set up to allow citizens to check polling station results failed to work effectively – with only 83% of results uploaded five days after the election – this made for a compelling narrative of manipulation in favour of Tinubu.

Short of expectations

The numerous problems led to unusually forthright statements by international observers. The US-based joint mission of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute concluded that the “election fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations”, noting that overcrowding at polling stations meant that “the secrecy of the ballot was compromised”.

While recognising the challenging environment, the NDI/IRI group also laid considerable blame squarely at INEC’s door, saying “inadequate communication and lack of transparency” had “created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process”.

Against this background, many Obi and Abubakar supporters will not even think it is worth asking whether the elections were rigged – for them it was, as a friend put it to me, as “plain as the nose on your face”. For many of the Obidients – the fervent young supporters of Obi – the election confirmed what they already believed to be true: that the system is rigged against anyone who threatens to fundamentally change it.

Having spent over a decade writing about – and trying to uncover – examples of election rigging, I am inherently sympathetic to this critique. In weakly institutionalised multiparty systems like Nigeria, governments begin elections with a wide range of advantages that are compounded by the fact they can exert influence over the media, security forces, and electoral commission. When logistical electoral processes collapse, it is often because undermining them creates opportunities for those in power to manipulate the vote.

Given this reality, and the concerns raised by a host of domestic and international observers, it might initially seem that Nigeria is a slam-dunk case of how (not) to rig an election. The reality is somewhat more complicated, however.

Rigging took place

To see why, we need to distinguish three different ways that the term “rigging” is used. This phrase can refer to specific instances of electoral fraud, the coordinated and centralised manipulation of the process, or the claim that the wrong candidate won. In the case of Nigeria’s 2023 general election, it is clear that the first kind of rigging took place. But we don’t yet have the evidence to be able to conclude that the system was centrally manipulated and the wrong candidate won.

We know that there were specific instances of fraud because domestic observers exposed it. According to Yiaga, INEC officials were unprofessional and partisan in 9% of the polling units they observed. There is also clear evidence this impacted the presidential vote in some states. In Rivers state for example, Yiaga says its parallel vote tabulation put Tinubu on 21.7% of the vote, but INEC’s figures gave him 44.2%.

Meanwhile, Yiaga found that Obi had won the state with 50.8% of the ballot, but INEC gave him just 33.4%. Although Yiaga estimates were based on projections from a sample and so come with a significant margin of error, the size of the discrepancy was much larger than this.

Using this evidence to build a successful court case could be tricky, however, because their own events in Imo and Rivers do not demonstrate that the wrong candidate won nationally. If we use Yiaga’s analysis as evidence that manipulation took place within some states, we also need to listen to their overall conclusion about the national vote tally – and Yiaga concludes that the national figures are credible.

According to Yiaga’s sample, Tinubu should have received “between 34.4% and 37.4% of the vote”, Abubakar 28.3% to 31.1% and Obi 24.2% to 28.4%. The official results announced by INEC all fall within these margins, with Tinubu at 36.6%, Abubakar at 29.1% and Obi at 25.4%.

Access denied

The legal teams representing Abubakar and Obi will argue that both sets of figures are flawed because they do not reflect voters who failed to cast a ballot due to fear of violence and logistical problems. This is a fair point. Yiaga recognises that its “numbers do not reflect voters who were denied access”, and is transparent about the fact that “realistically, we do not know how it affected result outcomes”. The problem for Abubakar and Obi is that Yiaga is right: we can surmise that violence most likely hurt the chances of opposition candidates, but that will be hard to prove.

Tinubu’s legal team can, for example, argue that Obi’s strong performance in opinion polls did not materialise at the ballot box due to the limited reach of his institutional and personal networks, which are critical to getting the vote out – an issue that was noted ahead of the election by a number of commentators.

INEC’s decentralised structure also makes it harder to prove that coordinated manipulation occurred. Considerable authority is given to Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECS), who manage elections at the state level and are appointed by the president rather than by the Chair of INEC, Professor Mahmood Yakubu.

This structure gives INEC headquarters a ready-made defence against accusations of centralised rigging because it can argue problems were due to challenges with individual lower-level officials – framing Imo and Rivers as isolated incidents rather than examples of a nationwide pattern. This process has already begun, leading Abubakar to tell Yakubu to stop trying to shift the blame onto his staff.

The difficulty of proving coordinated rigging does not mean that it was an acceptable election or that the courts will reject the petitions. In the past, being able to show that the wrong candidate won was often the threshold used for condemning/invalidating an election by observers and judges.

In 2017, however, Kenya’s Supreme Court set a bold new precedent by ruling the presidential election was “illegal” because it was not conducted consistently with the constitution – leaving aside the question of who won.

Nigeria’s judges can follow suit if they wish to raise the bar in terms of what counts as a “good enough” election, and demand the better quality democracy so many citizens are desperate to see. Unless further evidence of manipulation is revealed, however, they are unlikely to nullify the election on the basis that the wrong candidate won.

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