What Nigeria needed above all was a clean election to reiterate the basic message of democracy: that a sovereign people can choose its leaders. Sadly, it did not happen. The election — which appears to have delivered the presidency to Bola Tinubu, a wealthy political fixer running for the incumbent All Progressives Congress — was badly mismanaged at best. It failed to set the example needed for west Africa, a region where too many national leaders have extended term limits or resorted to seizing power at gunpoint. Nigeria remains a democracy, but only just.
The omens had been better. The emergence of Peter Obi as a viable third-party candidate had brought excitement and forced candidates to talk about policies, if only a little. Neutral observers thought the Independent National Electoral Commission was in good shape. They had high expectations that INEC’s promise to transmit voting tallies electronically from polling stations would eliminate ballot stuffing. The outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari, had staked what remains of his tattered reputation on a clean contest.
Yet the INEC badly misfired. Voting started late in many districts, depriving millions of the right to vote. The system to upload results from 177,000 polling stations stuttered, causing legitimate concerns of vote tampering during long delays. Violence was troubling. Party goons invaded many polling stations in what appeared to be blatant acts of intimidation. The Financial Times witnessed armed men remove a presidential ballot box in Surulere, Lagos.
The official result put Tinubu on 37 per cent, Atiku Abubakar from the People’s Democratic party on 29 per cent and Obi on 25 per cent. But some individual results do not pass the smell test. That includes Obi’s ever-so narrow victory in Lagos state, where crowds had greeted him like a rock star.
More worrying still was voter turnout, which was pitifully low at 27 per cent. If official results are right, two-thirds of the 87mn people who lined up for hours to collect their voter registration cards failed to cast their ballot. Apathy cannot explain it. Something, including the possibility of widespread voter suppression, must have prevented them from voting. Total turnout of 25mn votes in a country of 220mn people is unacceptably low. Tinubu’s tally of 8.8mn gives him the weakest of mandates.
Obi and Abubakar must now decide whether to pursue their claims of rigging in the courts. If they do, Nigeria’s judiciary should take a long hard look. The courts in Kenya in 2017 and Malawi in 2020 overturned suspect elections. If Nigeria’s courts find suspicions, they should not shrink from annulling individual contests or even the whole result.
It is plausible courts could conclude that — despite some obvious irregularities — the overall result reflected the will of the people. In that case, or if there is no court challenge, Tinubu will be faced with one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Nigeria has been teetering on the edge of catastrophe, with a breakdown of security and an almost total absence of growth. Neither is sustainable. By 2050, Nigeria will have 400mn people. They cannot be left without hope.
The next president must quickly remove the ruinously expensive fuel subsidy and rationalise the exchange rate system. The army and police, both riddled with ineptitude and corruption, need urgent reform. These basic steps are the minimum to begin to repair a deeply damaged country.
Tinubu campaigned partly on his ability to pick a strong team. If he is confirmed as president, he must name a cabinet of independent, competent and honest ministers. Even Nigerians who did not vote for him will hope against hope for that.