Corruption, delayed elections and fake news: what is the future of Nigerian democracy?

Image description: sitting president Muhammadu Buhari

Last week, millions of Nigerians made their way from across the country to vote in the election scheduled for Saturday 16th February, only to be informed, a mere five hours before the polls were set to open, that it has been postponed by a week. This is not the first such occurrence in the country, with similar cancellations in 2011 and 2015.

On the face of things, the implications of this do not seem so grave, yet the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry puts the estimated cost of this blunder at a whopping $1.5 billion, citing costs of travel from remote regions with poor infrastructure. Inec, the country’s electoral commission, listed difficulties in delivering election materials and personnel, bad weather, and attempted sabotage among reasons for the delay, but many hold these to be excuses for bureaucratic incompetence. It is this kind of incident that is symptomatic of the major challenges facing Nigerian democracy.

Nigeria’s current democratic tradition dates back to 1999, when the election of Olusegun Obasanjo ended nearly 33 years of military dictatorship. Saturday’s election will see a stand-off between sitting president Muhammadu Buhari, and prominent businessman and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. Mr Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is more popular in the predominantly Christian south, while Mr Buhari’s All Progressive’s Congress (APC) draws on the Muslim north as its power base.

“Today’s winner will have implications not only on Nigeria’s economy and defence, but on the state of democracy itself.”

However, the fact that both candidates are Muslims from the north makes the election’s outcome closer and harder to predict, but may also remedy the ills of identity politics. Mr Buhari’s absence in London for 104 days in 2017 left his compatriots confused, and sparked widespread speculation as to whether he was still alive. This is indicative of a lack of transparency and accountability that is commonplace in Nigerian politics, which leaves ordinary people disillusioned and sceptical of their role in the democratic process. The president later had to deny rumours that he was replaced by a look-alike.

Whoever triumphs will have to address a number of issues critical to the living standards of Nigerian citizens. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, experiencing a rapid rate of 9.5% GDP growth in 2015. But growth has slowed down recently as a result of falling oil prices, the country’s biggest export. Its economy is also a deeply unequal one, with economist Bismarck Rewane estimating that only 5% of the population controls around 40% of the country’s wealth. All this while around half of the population – some 87 million people – live in absolute poverty, placing Nigeria first and above India, according to the World Bank’s poverty ranking. Popular support will therefore be with whoever conveys not only economic competence, but also a commitment towards easing the suffering of this impoverished majority.

A tough stance against corruption is likewise desirable, and both candidates have had to fend off accusations of dishonest-dealings. To successfully implement a Western-inspired system of democracy, Nigeria will have to leave behind long-standing tribal traditions and values. Another hot topic is security and terrorism. Whereas killings by Islamist militant group Boko Haram have fallen below 1,000 in 2018 from a high-point of 5,000 in 2015, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), kidnappings have risen since 2016 to some 310 reports in 2018, cited by Nigeria Security Tracker. Nigerians will vote for whoever can guarantee safety and provide an adequate solution to these problems of defence.

As for the current election, several factors threaten the viability of its outcome as truly free and representative. Fake news runs rife in the country, where ill-founded rumours and out-of-context scandals are disseminated through social media. Fabricated images supposedly showing Donald Trump endorsing PDP candidate Abubakar Atiku have been refuted, as have reports of a road allegedly built by Mr Buhari, which was in fact found to be in neighbouring Rwanda. Both parties deny any connection with these stories, though the latter was shared by Lauretta Onochi, a colleague of the president. She later publicly apologised for the incident. Facebook and Twitter have also taken action, but Facebook’s messaging service, Whatsapp, has proven particularly troublesome due to its end-to-end encryption feature, which makes the sender hard to trace.

The risk of interference by militants in the north, and criminal gangs countrywide is also problematic, and two of Inec’s offices have already been burnt down. But the commission now says it is prepared for the election. It is co-operating with security forces to minimise disruption and has reprogrammed some 180,000 smart card readers ahead of the big day. Nigeria’s people show a strong desire for a fair and just democratic process, and their government seems to recognise this. Today’s winner will have implications not only on Nigeria’s economy and defence, but on the state of democracy itself.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of State via Flickr