Nigeria’s elections on 25th February will not only be critical to the future of Nigeria, but also to that of the continent, and to an extent the world. It will be taken as a sign of whether democracy is advancing or retreating. As Africa’s biggest democracy with some 93 million potential voters – even if turnout has hitherto been well under 50% – Nigeria will be seen as a weathervane for the world at large.
Democracy has been under threat in recent years. In the US and UK populist leaders sought to undermine legislatures and challenge the rule of law. In Africa voters have elected leaders who weaken democratic institutions, as in Tunisia, while countries like Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso have seen unconstitutional changes of government. Nigeria’s elections are being watched closely not just by its neighbours and international observer groups, but by those who would be happy to see democracy retreat further.
I have followed Nigeria’s politics since the 1970s, and observed the 2015 presidential elections at close quarters. Since independence, the country’s politics has been bumpy: a civil war, coups, political violence and contested elections give an impression of perpetual turbulence. But things have changed enormously in those 60 years.
After the first three decades, major political reforms created a system that established a compromise between competing political forces. The division of the country into 36 states with considerable powers and resources reflected the diversity of the country and the need to devolve political authority to a more local level. Federal authority and presidential elections were won by the party that could pull together the biggest coalition of local power-brokers, usually through the political deployment of the country’s oil wealth. Patron-client politics of this kind (neo-patrimonialism, as political scientists call it) works as long as enough money trickles down to those who, in a democracy, can deliver the votes. All politics is fundamentally about the distribution of resources. So in Nigeria, ‘corruption’ did not undermine the political system; it was the political system.
This worked fine as long as enough money trickled down to keep people happy, and those non-beneficiaries of trickle-down could at least make a decent living through their own efforts, unencumbered by the state. The government’s generous fuel subsidies benefited all citizens (albeit some more than others), and Nigeria’s low tax environment, with almost no personal taxation, enabled many to feel there was little burden from the state and an adequate return for their loyalty.
But this system is no longer working. The elections will reveal whether a new system is emerging, or whether the old system will stagger on a bit longer before collapsing, potentially into greater chaos.
It has broken down for three reasons.
Firstly, insecurity. The primary function of a state is to guarantee the security of its citizens. The Nigerian state is increasingly unable to do this, not only because of its inability to suppress the Islamic insurgency of Boko Haram and ISWAP in the north-east, but more importantly its failure to address the growing threat of banditry and criminal violence throughout much of the rest of the country. The police are widely derided and distrusted. While violence has been an endemic element in Nigerian politics for decades, and has been seen by some (in the south-east, for example) as a valid way to pressure the centre for more resources, I have met a number of Nigerians recently who feel their country is falling into a state of near anarchy, where it is no longer safe to drive from one town to another without fear of robbery or kidnap. This insecurity also damages local businesses which find it harder and harder to operate.
Secondly, there is no longer enough money trickling down. Oil revenues have stagnated, partly because the political class, in deference to vested interests, failed for years to agree rules that encouraged investment, and partly because of endemic oil bunkering. The increasingly sophisticated system of stealing crude from existing pipelines, processing it in informal micro-refineries and selling it on the illicit global oil market is estimated to constitute anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent of Nigeria’s official output, and is made possible by the active connivance of Delta insurgents, industry officials, security personnel and politicians.
At the same time both the population and the rapacity of those with access to state funds has grown, so less money has reached the voters. Government health and education services provide precious little, forcing most to pay for anything useful. The generous subsidies are no longer affordable for the state, so citizens will increasingly ask what on earth the state is doing for them. All political candidates have promised to bear down on corruption and reform the subsidies – but such promises have been made many times before. Former Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wrote a book about her efforts to combat corruption under Goodluck Jonathan, and President Buhari has repeatedly stressed his commitment to it. But when it is such a deeply entrenched part of the system, it is hard to shift.
Thirdly, there is an ideological void at the heart of politics. Nationalism has provided a weaker and weaker glue to hold the country together since independence. Religion remains strong in both north and south, and has political influence, but is not a national glue. Individualism, imagination and entrepreneurialism are national strengths, and a tremendous resource for the country. But without a collective objective to focus them, disillusion is setting in and many of the brightest and most ambitious will continue to leave for better opportunities abroad.
The failure of the current political model is reflected in changing attitudes and actions. The EndSARS movement captured the imagination of the young, protesting against the abuses of the security forces. Corruption which was once tolerated has now become intolerable. And in the face of pervasive insecurity more citizens are taking up arms to defend themselves, seen in the growth of vigilante groups and militias in the Middle Belt and elsewhere.
Nigeria still has the most aspirational middle class on the continent. Finding themselves going backwards, not forwards, many are rallying to Peter Obi as a candidate who offers hope of a new approach to politics in contrast to the creaking machines of the APC and PDP. But he lacks a machine himself: the Labour Party is like a newborn in a land of crocodiles. Kwankwaso and the NNPP are in a similar situation. The election is therefore partly a contest between aspiration and organisation. In many – even most – states, it is usually local factors and local loyalties that decide which way people vote, and that would play to the APC and PDP’s strength in having established local networks.
Some pundits argue that the APC machine, with the biggest coalition and Tinubu as the richest candidate, will bulldoze its way to victory once again. Others argue that Obi will split the vote in the south-west and thereby allow the PDP’s Atiku to finally achieve his ambitions, at the sixth attempt, though with less than 50% of the vote. Few give Obi or Kwankwaso a serious chance of winning this time, unless young people register and turn out in far greater numbers than ever before. Voter turnout could be the critical factor in this year’s election.
But there is a wider issue. Does the Obi political insurgency on top of the various armed insurgencies suggest that more and more Nigerians increasingly see the APC and PDP as instruments run by and for political elites, oblivious to people’s everyday concerns? All political parties are coalitions, in Nigeria’s case made up of local power-brokers. Loyalty to the party is weak, and changing allegiance is easy, and common. So the machine politics represented by the APC and PDP may prove weaker that it looks, and some local power-brokers may decide they need to listen to their people, not just their friends.
Beyond the result, though, there is a risk to democracy itself. Elsewhere in Africa – in Tunisia, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea – we have seen citizens disillusioned with democratic politics turn to authoritarian alternatives. In Zimbabwe, also holding general elections later this year, most feel the outcome is a foregone conclusion with ZANU-PF continuing in power, whatever citizens might want. Democracy will only survive if it is able to renew itself, to reform old structures that no longer work, and deliver more for the citizens. Pressure for reform will often come from below, but it needs leaders who listen and respond to be put into practice.
This election marks an inflection point for Nigeria: the possible beginning of fundamental change, or a step closer to disintegration. Democratic revolutions rarely happen overnight. They take hard graft and long years of campaigning. A growing number of Nigerian citizens want to change the way politics is done and seem willing to persevere. Whatever the outcome of this election, that is a good thing.
Whoever is elected will have to recognise that politics is changing. Ruling in the same old way will no longer work: it risks accelerating the country’s disintegration, spreading violence and deepening corruption, with Nigeria becoming the first country in Africa effectively to eat itself.
That would put the rest of West Africa at risk. A democratic, resilient, prosperous and active Nigeria can lead the continent. A chaotic one will hobble the whole of Africa. The world will be watching closely what happens there on 25 February.