Nigerians head to the polls to choose a new president — and brace for post-election violence


Supporters hold a placard with pictures of the candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi and running mate Datti Baba-Ahmed during a campaign rally of the party in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 11, 2023. / Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Feb 23, 2023 / 17:05 pm (CNA).

By all accounts, the stakes are high for Nigeria’s presidential elections on Feb. 25.

A sectarian insurgency and murderous banditry in the biggest country in Africa could worsen if the new president is unable to get it under control.

On the other hand, if a new administration can restore law and order and take advantage of Nigeria’s vast natural resources, Nigeria could quickly become one of the world’s economic miracles, according to Nigerian economists.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who is at the end of his second term, cannot run again. This year, for the first time, there are three major candidates for president. The favorite among Christians of all backgrounds is Peter Obi, a Catholic politician known for prudent management of the state of Anambra during his two-term service as governor there.

Obi heads up a new political party, the Labour Party. The other two candidates are considered establishment politicians with well-trained political machines. The front-runner by some accounts is Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a Muslim politician from the Yoruba ethnic tribe representing Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which he helped to create in 2015. The other veteran is former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim heading the long-established People’s Democratic Party.

Obi, should he win, would be the first president of Igbo ethnicity, a large and powerful tribal group in Nigeria’s southeastern states. Tinubu, a former two-term governor of Lagos state, has many supporters in Lagos and the southwestern states. Abubakar, of Fulani ethnicity, has a base of support in the northern states where Fulani and Hausa people are the majority.

“This election is probably the most important election in the world because of Nigeria’s pivotal position in Africa,” Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told CNA.

“There has been egregious violence against one-half of the nation’s demographic, the Christians, for over a decade. And it’s almost unimaginable to expect a free and fair election or acceptance by the losing side,” she said.

“Whatever the outcome of the elections in Nigeria, violence is expected,” Dede Laugesen, executive director of Save the Persecuted Christians, told CNA.

“If Tinubu or Atiku wins, it will ensure a Muslim remains at the helm of the territorial and political jihad raging unchecked across the land and within the administration, judicial branches, and security agencies,” said Laugesen, a Catholic who visited Nigeria earlier this month. “If Peter Obi, the preferred choice of most Christians and a large cadre of youth, pulls off an unexpected win, there will be violent protests and attacks.”

Laugesen added: “This religiously and politically divided, cash-poor, weary, and impoverished country is prime for post-election violence as has, unfortunately, been experienced many times before.”

Competing visions

Abubakar, 76, began his career as a customs service officer and rose quickly to the senior ranks. In 1982 he started an oil company that brought him vast profits. As a civil servant he began to invest in farmland and commerce but not with bribes, although he admits the profession was rife with it, he asserted in his autobiography.

“Corruption was rife in customs but I was not part of it,” he wrote. “I saw customs … as a way of making money for the government.” He believes that his entrepreneurial skills can be harnessed to jumpstart Nigeria’s lagging economy. His party manifesto promises to create a “market-based economy driven by small and medium-scale businesses and regulated by a reformed public sector.” 

Candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu gestures during the final campaign rally of the party at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, on Feb. 21, 2023, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election scheduled for February 25, 2023. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu gestures during the final campaign rally of the party at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, on Feb. 21, 2023, ahead of the Nigerian presidential election scheduled for February 25, 2023. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Tinubu, who says he is 70 but who his critics say is much older, made his mark as a pro-democracy lawmaker in 1993. In that year, he stood against the edict of the military dictator who set aside the results of the national election. Tinubu had to flee the country to advocate for democratic reforms.

Later, as governor of the sprawling metropolis of Lagos state, Tinubu created local governance councils and revenue streams that made Lagos independent of federal subsidies. He became known as a technocrat and governance innovator.

Both Tinubu and Abubakar have faced corruption charges for years but never were convicted. Tinubu pledges, as Buhari promised eight years ago, to win the war against radical Muslim insurgents and bandits.

“To achieve this, we will re-engineer our security architecture to enhance the capacity of our armed forces and security agencies to guarantee the safety of the lives and properties of our people,” the election manifesto of the APC states. “This will enable our farmers to return fully to their farms with the resultant increase in food production and affordability.”

Supporters chant party slogans next to a banner of the candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi during a campaign rally of the party in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 11, 2023. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

Supporters chant party slogans next to a banner of the candidate of the Labour Party Peter Obi during a campaign rally of the party in Lagos, Nigeria, on Feb. 11, 2023. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

Peter Obi, 61, has been lauded by many for his squeaky-clean record as a steward of public assets.

“The problems of Nigeria are at once complex and simple,” he has said. “It rests on leadership. The Nigerian problem is an inability of Nigerian leaders to lead from the front by example.”

Obi has promised a raft of reforms, chief among them an intense development of the agricultural sector.

“With 70 million hectares [more than 270,000 square miles] of arable land, we will pursue an agricultural revolution,” he told a Chatham House gathering in December 2022. His reforms would include dredging Nigeria’s two major rivers and creating hydroelectric dams to generate electricity.

To stem the nation’s sectarian violence, Obi promises to set up policing authorities at both the state and local community levels, in contrast to the current federal police authority centered in the capital. Obi’s plan to reverse the brain drain of Nigeria’s best and brightest students promises a Nigerian version of the Marshall Plan for public schools.

“We are going to leapfrog into the fourth industrial revolution by developing knowledge and skills, including robotics, automation, AI, and virtual reality,” he told the group.

Obi is highly favored among Nigerian youth under 35, and in this faceoff, they count for 40% of the electorate, prompting some to call this year a “young people’s election.”

Bullets vs. ballots

Nigerian elections have been marred by widespread violence and vote rigging, which takes two forms.

In some polling stations, armed gangs intimidate voters attempting to enter the polling offices, or in some cases, thugs steal the ballot boxes at the end of the day and stuff them with fake ballots.

The Nigerian government has mobilized the military and the federal police forces to protect voters traveling to their polling stations and canceled 240 polling locations Feb. 14 due to threats of violence.

The government has made efforts to shore up the credibility of the voting system and has reported that 93 million citizens are registered to vote.

Critics of the government have alleged that the voter rolls are stuffed with millions of unqualified voters. At least 516 foreign nationals were arrested in the northern part of Kaduna state on Feb. 5 for carrying voting cards, according to Nigerian TV news.

According to the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is the engine of a sham election.

“The present 93.5 million registered voters for [the] 2023 presidential poll includes an estimated 20 million ineligible identities comprising [an] estimated 8 million Muslim children of underage, 2 million Muslim illegal migrants, 4 million fake or fictitious names, and 6 million stolen or diverted identities or permanent voting cards [PVCs] out of which, 90% or 18 million may likely represent dead/fake votes,” alleges Emeka Umeabulasi, the founder of Intersociety.

CNA was unable to verify Intersociety’s claims.

On the other hand, last year’s electoral law is being implemented to close out some of the vote-rigging efforts in past elections, according to Emmanuel Ihim, a Dallas-based lawyer and president of the Diaspora Alliance, USA, an Igbo ethnicity group.

“INEC leadership has done a commendable electoral reform using the new law, which closed the loopholes for rigging, snatching of ballot boxes, and changing election result sheets,” Ihim told CNA.

“Yet the risk of violence and even mass atrocities is real. More than 50 INEC offices have been attacked in 21 states,” he added.

Despite the threats, Mahmood Yakubu, chairman of INEC, has pledged that the elections will be held on Saturday, Feb. 25. In previous elections, the winner has been declared the third day after voting.

As Nigeria lurches toward a fateful election, Nigeria’s bishops called upon the faithful to vote as if their very lives depended upon it.

“Our votes are precious; we must use them well. We encourage all eligible citizens to come out en masse to vote for God-fearing, honest, vibrant, and transparent leaders for a better Nigeria,” the bishops wrote at the end of a plenary session held Feb. 11-17.

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