Calming Tensions Amid Nigeria’s Post-election Controversy
Acute polarisation following Nigerian elections is not uncommon, but the atmosphere will be especially charged when the new president is inaugurated on 29 May. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), will take the helm from Muhammadu Buhari, who is leaving office after an eight-year tenure. Tinubu’s declared victory in the 25 February polls is steeped in controversy, due to several significant problems.
Most worryingly, some ethnic and religious groups, along with millions of youths, are feeling a heightened sense of exclusion and disillusionment after the election, meaning that the new authorities will face big challenges in easing tensions.
Acute polarisation following Nigerian elections is not uncommon, but the atmosphere will be especially charged when the new president is inaugurated on 29 May. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 71, of the ruling All Progressives Congress, will take the helm from Muhammadu Buhari, 80, who is leaving office after an eight-year tenure. Tinubu’s declared victory in the 25 February polls is steeped in controversy, due to several significant problems. The electoral commission’s failure to collate ballots transparently and questions about Tinubu’s eligibility for the top post have prompted legal challenges to the results. Most worryingly, some ethnic and religious groups, along with millions of youths, are feeling a heightened sense of exclusion and disillusionment after the election, meaning that the new authorities will face big challenges in easing tensions. To this end, politicians should tone down rhetoric and curb hate speech, election tribunals should resolve petitions speedily and transparently, prosecutors should pursue alleged election offences with vigour and the new president should ensure that his key appointments appropriately reflect Nigeria’s diversity.
On 1 March, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) proclaimed Tinubu the victor with 36 per cent of the vote. His main rivals, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, won 28 and 24 per cent, respectively. Tinubu is the first candidate since 1999, when multi-party politics resumed in Nigeria, to secure the presidency with less than 50 per cent of the tally. This weak mandate, which reflects widespread disenchantment with his party’s record in the federal government over the last eight years, along with misgivings about his personal eligibility for the office, is among many sources of tension amid the fallout from the election.
Expectations for the vote were sky-high, due mostly to INEC’s assurances of greater transparency thanks to technological innovations. Anticipating a genuinely competitive race, voters registered in record numbers, making the election one of the most closely watched in Nigeria’s recent history. Yet things played out differently than anticipated.
For one thing, voter turnout was much lower than expected, an abysmal 27 per cent, down from about 35 per cent in 2019. There are several theories about why the rate was so low: it may have been due to persistent distrust of the electoral system, despite significant INEC reforms under Mahmood Jega’s chairmanship; voter fatigue after previous elections that have brought no improvement in livelihoods; fears of violence by thugs and armed groups; and the effects of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s rushed policy of swapping out the bills of the national currency , the naira, which left many voters without enough cash to travel to polling stations.
Nor did INEC deliver on its promises. The election suffered from logistical and technological shortcomings , as well as reports of staff misconduct , some of which the electoral commission has yet to clearly explain. In many areas, tallies for the presidential election were not uploaded from polling stations to INEC’s electronic portal for several days after voting was over, and even after the commission had declared Tinubu the winner , despite pre-election promises that the results would appear online in real time. External observers joined reputable Nigeria-based groups, such as the Civil Society Situation Room, Yiaga Africa and the Centre for Democracy and Development, in criticising the process. The European Union’s mission said INEC’s “lack of efficient planning in critical stages and effective public communication reduced trust in the process, including on election day”. At the same time, the election produced significant upsets in several local races, suggesting a clean vote in those places. Disparities in the conduct of the polls and credibility of results among various locations, some even within the same area, have led to intense disputes between winners, who claim the polls were free and fair, and others who reject the results as irredeemably flawed.
While the elections were largely peaceful in most states, armed thugs disrupted voting in a number of them.
Interference with voting in some states further poisoned the air. While the elections were largely peaceful in most states, armed thugs disrupted voting in a number of them. They did such things as snatch or destroy polling materials; intimidate voters and election officials; block citizens from casting ballots for anyone but particular candidates; and force electoral staff to credit candidates with votes at the expense of others or to upload badly altered result sheets to the INEC platform. In Lagos state, these disruptions targeted areas that had large Igbo populations, known to be strongly supportive of the Labour Party’s Obi. Particularly in Lagos and Rivers states, the police and other security personnel seemed unwilling or unable to counter such acts or downplayed reports of malfeasance, giving ammunition to opposition supporters who charged that their votes were significantly suppressed.
Shortcomings in the conduct of the elections and collation of results have led to several legal challenges by the opposition parties, notably the People’s Democratic Party and the Labour Party. The lawsuits are challenging Tinubu’s qualifications and eligibility to contest the election on two counts: first, by making allegations about his connection to a 1993 drug trafficking case in the U.S.; and secondly, that his candidacy was tainted by the alleged double nomination of his running mate, Kashim Shettima, as vice president while still a senatorial candidate in Borno state, contrary to Section 35 of the Electoral Act of 2022 (On 26 May, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a case on the second count, filed by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party). The opposition’s lawsuits are also contending that Tinubu was not duly elected by the majority of the lawful votes cast in the election – that not only did he fail to score the highest number of votes but that he also did not win at least one quarter of the votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), a constitutional provision over which lawyers and courts have offered diverse interpretations. Furthermore, they argue that numerous alleged corrupt activities during the polls, along with INEC’s non-compliance with the provisions of the 2022 Electoral Act and other extant laws, substantially affected the results, rendering Tinubu’s election invalid.
Petitioners say they have immense evidence, including that derived from examining INEC’s balloting hardware and materials, in support of their challenges, but some of their cases may not be decided until months after Tinubu’s inauguration. While past presidential elections attracted similar cases, except in 2015 when President Goodluck Jonathan readily conceded defeat, no tribunal or court has ever overturned Nigeria’s presidential election results.
The discontent stirred up by the presidential election bodes ill for Nigeria’s stability. The post-election tensions have not triggered large-scale violence, as some analysts had feared. Fatalities in 2023 are far lower than the levels seen after most previous elections, particularly in 2011, when ethno-religious violence killed some 1,000 people in twelve northern states. Still, it is hard not to worry about what may be coming down the pike. On 6 April, former President Olusegun Obasanjo lamented that the vote had eroded national cohesion: “Given what we saw during the election, Nigeria is now even more divided and more corroded than we thought”.
Indeed, the election threw the country’s often blurry ethnic, religious and generational fault lines into sharp relief. Five areas are of particular concern. First, ethnic tension became more pronounced, arguably most significantly in Lagos state, which includes the country’s most populous city, Lagos. This city was Nigeria’s federal capital for over six decades until 1992, and it continuously attracts large numbers of people from all over the country. In the countdown to the elections, frictions grew in Lagos between Tinubu’s supporters from the Yoruba ethnic group and Obi’s backers of Igbo ethnicity. There were also reports of communal tensions in other states, though to a much lower degree. Demands for expulsion of some ethnic groups, boycotts of businesses run by other groups and inflammatory rhetoric, including among mainstream political figures before and after the vote, suggest a rise in inter-communal acrimony. Given this environment, any minor incident could trigger deadly violence.
Many argue that electing an Igbo as president would, both symbolically and sub-stantially, signal Igbos’ full readmission to the Nigerian nation.
Secondly, the election result has left an especially sour taste among Igbos, who voted overwhelmingly for Obi, hoping he would make history as the first president of Igbo descent since Nnamdi Azikiwe, whose largely ceremonial presidency was terminated by a coup in 1966. Some non-Igbos, notably including the leader of the pan-Yoruba Afenifere group, Ayo Adebanjo, and the leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum, Edwin Clark, had also supported Obi’s bid as a way to end the “marginalisation” of Igbos in the Nigerian federation and to heal wounds lingering from the 1967-1970 Biafra war . That war pitted Igbo separatists against the federal government, and though the government put reconciliation programs in place after the war, many argue that electing an Igbo as president would, both symbolically and substantially, signal Igbos’ full readmission to the Nigerian nation.
Some Igbos, including prominent clerics, politicians and newspaper opinion writers, have cited reports of election irregularities as evidence of a conspiracy by other groups to exclude the Igbo from national leadership. Some have gone so far as to say Igbos should have their own country, as they seem to be barred from holding the Nigerian presidency. This narrative resonates strongly with many citizens in the South East, with its large Igbo population, but it overlooks the fact that many Igbo politicians did not back Obi and, indeed, actively supported one of his non-Igbo opponents, Tinubu or Abubakar. Even so, some Igbo leaders already point to Tinubu’s appointment of an inauguration committee with no Igbo among its thirteen members as a portent of Igbo exclusion from the incoming government. The national vice president of the pan-Igbo group, Ohaneze Ndigbo Worldwide, Damian Okeke-Ogene, said Tinubu , just like Buhari before him, is determined to keep the Igbo out of his administration – though this claim does not fairly represent Buhari’s record with respect to appointments.
The tensions may already be aggravating Biafra separatist agitation. On 10 April, reacting to the reports of intimidation of Igbo voters in parts of Lagos state during the elections, the separatist Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra urged Igbo businesses to relocate to their South East homeland. This call will not be heeded by millions of Igbos living across the country, and nor will similar urgings by other pro-Biafra groups, but it could feed into a new wave of secessionism in the South East. Particularly if the incoming government fails to make inclusive appointments and allocate infrastructure projects equitably, it may embolden Biafra separatists.
Thirdly, the election reopened religious fissures. By informal convention, the Nigerian presidency rotates between Muslims and Christians. As Buhari is a Muslim from the north, many Christians had expected that the next president would be one of their number. Even more unsettling to them is that Tinubu, in defiance of another unwritten rule, chose a fellow Muslim, former Borno state governor Kashim Shettima, as his vice president. Many Christian groups reject the result. Responding to the INEC declaration on 1 March, several prominent clerics said Tinubu was not their president. Others referenced the graft allegations that have dogged Tinubu’s career, claiming that the questions about his integrity disqualify him from the top office.
Absent a vigorous effort to mend fences, many of these leaders and organisations will persist in spurning the Tinubu presidency. If many Christians remain thus alienated, it will be increasingly difficult to advance the inter-faith dialogue so direly needed to curb deadly violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, where the country’s major Christian-Muslim fault line lies, as well as in deeply troubled Kaduna state. The risk of incurring deep resentment among Christians in the Middle Belt and southern states will be especially great if the incoming government fails to balance religious identities in its cabinet
Many youths ... view the election outcome as a lost opportunity for a generational shift in the country’s leadership.
Fourthly, many youths, especially in the southern states, view the election outcome as a lost opportunity for a generational shift in the country’s leadership, which they consider crucial to improving their economic prospects and livelihoods. Youth disenchantment was already high, in part driven by poor economic conditions and bad governance. The four to five million young Nigerians who enter the job market annually struggle to find work. The National Bureau of Statistics recorded an increase in the unemployment rate from 23.1 per cent in 2018 to 33.3 per cent in 2020. With little economic growth, the rate has probably kept rising since then (fully up-to-date figures are not available). The multinational consulting firm KPMG estimates that 37.7 per cent of the population was jobless in 2022 and that 40.6 per cent could be in 2023. Young women have an additional set of concerns , particularly regarding women’s representation in government, which began to decline in 2011 and fell to three per cent in the National Assembly in the 2023 elections.
In the near term, youth anger could morph into unrest if the new administration puts in place policies, such as withdrawing fuel subsidies, which are bound to have inflationary effects. Such policies are overdue but would be highly unpopular and should be calibrated accordingly. In the longer term, deepening disillusionment among youth could feed urban crime and rural banditry, as well as Islamist, secessionist and resource-linked Niger Delta militancy.
Youth disillusionment could also lead to greater emigration of Nigerian youth to Europe, North America and elsewhere, either through official channels or by dangerous irregular crossings of the Sahara and the Mediterranean Sea. In January 2021, a World Bank survey reported 50 per cent of Nigerian youths wanting to leave the country in search of a brighter economic future abroad. Nigeria placed third among the West African nations whose youth were polled on this question, trailing only Liberia (70 per cent) and Sierra Leone (60 per cent). Youth emigration has increased sharply in recent years, draining away talent from sectors including health, education and information technology.
Healing the Fissures
While Tinubu’s impending presidency has been a source of despondency in some communities, others are celebrating it. His supporters in the ruling APC believe he is the right person to salvage Buhari’s faltering legacy. Others, pointing to his terms as Lagos state governor (1999-2007), in which he championed infrastructure development and civil service reform, believe that he can repeat that performance in Abuja. Yet, despite his backers’ enthusiasm the reality is that Tinubu, or whomever the adjudication process eventually declares the winner, will take over a country where millions of citizens are highly discontented with the presidential election. Against this backdrop, Nigeria’s political and civic leaders should work together to heal rather than widen the fissures that were exacerbated by the elections.
The first task is to prevent the polarisation uncorked during the election from veering into further instability. The new president should demonstrate his commitment to national reconciliation in word and deed. Tinubu has made gestures in this direction. On 16 March, he said he would seek as president a better Nigeria for all citizens, irrespective of political affiliation. He urged his supporters to extend “the hand of friendship, reconciliation and togetherness” to those who did not vote for him. On 3 May, he promised to work hard to ensure that no part of the country is left out of development projects. Such statements, while promising, need follow-up with credible action.
The new president ... [should] ensure fair representation in the cabinet, as well as policymaking posts in the security agencies and public finance management.
A key step the new president could take in this regard is to ensure fair representation in the cabinet, as well as policymaking posts in the security agencies and public finance management. His early appointments should afford citizens in all parts of the country a sense of inclusion and belonging. As stipulated by Nigeria’s constitution, he should take care that his appointees reflect the country’s federal character, meaning that they should come from all the major geographical areas. Beyond complying with federal character provisions, appointments should also ensure inclusiveness along gender, religious and generational lines. To ensure gender inclusion and equity permanently, once the National Assembly settles down to legislative business, the new president should retable bills that were rejected by the National Assembly in 2022, and which seek to establish quotas for women’s representation in the federal and state legislatures, political party administration and ministerial appointments.
Further measures to bring the temperature down among his opponents and groups that feel that they lost out in the polls are also imperative. Once the judicial processes are concluded, the new president should enter talks with aggrieved political forces in order to defuse tensions. He must rein in his media team, decisively ending the vitriolic and ethnically divisive messaging in which his spokesmen engaged before and after the election. He must also ensure that his government does not use state instruments, particularly the intelligence and security agencies, to hound or muzzle critics in the media and civil society.
Beyond the new president, all politicians have a duty to ease the elevated inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-party tensions. Party figures should tone down their heated rhetoric and especially avoid ethnic slurs and other hate speech. The parties that won should moderate the gloating over victory and settle down to the business of governance, which now demands such urgent attention. Opposition parties and candidates need to play their part in reconciliation as well. They should respect court decisions, including unfavourable ones, and call on their supporters to do the same.
Civil society organisations, including religious groups, traditional institutions and international non-governmental organisations, can contribute to these efforts. Some organisations are already taking positive steps. On 28 April, a notable Igbo group, Nzuko Umunna, brought eminent citizens and leaders of influential groups from across the country to a unity summit dubbed Handshake Across Nigeria 2 , in the Enugu state capital, Enugu. According to an attendee, the summit participants stressed the imperative for continuous dialogue among all groups in the country as a means of promoting inter-ethnic engagement, national cohesion and unity. Other prominent groups, such as the Northern Elders Forum, Arewa Consultative Forum, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Afenifere, Middle Belt Forum and Pan Niger Development Forum, should similarly promote reconciliation and peaceful coexistence among various groups.
Local leaders should ... champion peace efforts.
Local leaders should also champion peace efforts, as some are already doing, for instance in parts of Lagos. International NGOs should continue to support these efforts. On 15 March, the London-based peacebuilding organisation, International Alert, in collaboration with the National Orientation Agency, Office for Strategic Preparedness and Resilience and the UK’s Conflict, Security and Stability Fund, organised a national dialogue in Abuja aimed at promoting post-election stability, justice and gender inclusion. The event particularly urged the incoming president to engage with the opposition parties in reducing tension, deepening support for democratic institutions and pursuing non-violent conflict resolution. Such initiatives should be sustained beyond the electoral season.
Ensuring justice is delivered in the case of election-related misdeeds could serve the twin goals of discouraging a culture of impunity and soothing discontent with the outcome. Responsibility for the first of these goals lies with the Nigeria Police Force. On 27 March, the police said they had arrested 781 people who allegedly perpetrated offences during the elections and were working with INEC to prosecute them. The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission said it was investigating thirteen suspects for bribery during the presidential, parliamentary, gubernatorial and State Assembly elections. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arrested 65 suspected offenders nationwide during the gubernatorial contests. This early action to root out malfeasance is a step in the right direction, but the public will be watching to make sure charges are vigorously prosecuted, justice fairly administered and appropriate sanctions applied.
The second pillar relating to electoral justice is even more critical: to ensure swift, transparent adjudication of petitions challenging the elections’ conduct and the results’ credibility. As of 1 May, parties and candidates had lodged more than 400 petitions in various tribunals at federal and state levels across the country. On 24 May, the presidential election petitions tribunal concluded preliminary hearings in Abuja, consolidated the various opposition parties’ overlapping petitions concerning the results of the presidential elections into one (in order to facilitate adjudication) and scheduled substantive hearings to start on 30 May. According to the Electoral Act, election tribunals have 180 days from when the petitions were filed to rule in the cases, after which appellate courts have another 60 days to hear any appeals, meaning that the process could drag on till November. The tribunals and courts are palpable reminders that the electoral process is governed by the rule of law, through which aggrieved candidates and their parties may find redress. Yet public confidence in the judiciary has diminished over the years. In 2021, a survey found that about 71 per cent of Nigerians lack trust in the courts. Given this fact, many citizens may harbour doubts about the verdicts no matter what they are.
Authorities can take steps to boost public trust. The Nigerian Bar Association and some political parties had urged the election tribunals and courts to allow proceedings to be broadcast live as a means of demonstrating transparency, but the tribunals rejected the call. Ideally, judges would determine matters on substantive grounds, rather than the technicalities used to dismiss cases in the past, a tendency that helped breed perceptions of manipulation by powerful actors behind the scenes. Going forward, ahead of future elections, the National Assembly (the federal parliament) should consider changes to the election laws that would allow enough time for petitions to be adjudicated conclusively before the president- and governor-elects are sworn in.
Nigeria could be in for a rough patch. The challenges facing the government taking office on 29 May are enormous, but they are not insurmountable. Cooling rhetoric, making inclusive appointments and taking affirmative steps to reach out to opponents and other aggrieved groups can all help the country edge back from what could be a downward spiral. Politicians, civic leaders and civil society figures should join in this effort. The sooner the new president and his team can get through this difficult moment, the sooner they can turn their sights to the work ahead: fostering national reconciliation, curbing impunity and deepening democracy for the benefit of all Nigerians.