ICYMI: Nigeria’s Flawed Election Risks a Democratic Backslide

“On Feb. 25, Nigerians elected a new president in a process that fell far short of what voters deserved and expected. The election—which delivered the presidency to Bola Tinubu, the ruling All Progressives Congress party’s candidate—was widely described as ‘flawed’ inside and outside Nigeria, casting a shadow over Tinubu’s anticipated inauguration on May 29.

“Despite the shortcomings of Nigeria’s election, it produced some encouraging results. For the first time in Nigerian history, a third-party presidential candidate made a serious showing. No former military general was on the ballot, a first since the end of military rule in 1999, and many incumbents were voted out on election day. The ruling party won only 36 percent of the vote, compared to 56 percent in 2019. In more than half the states, the winning presidential candidate represented a different party than that of the incumbent governor, which demonstrates an important principle of free elections: There are no guarantees for incumbents or legacy seats.

“What exactly went wrong in Nigeria? The election campaign was marred by numerous problems, including poor intra-party democracy, persistent political violence, and court rulings that lacked clarity. Low turnout played a role, too. Before the election, there was optimism over new electoral reforms and high levels of voter enthusiasm. Voter registration soared, particularly among young voters—a key demographic, considering that Nigeria’s median age is just 18. Ultimately, almost 10 million new voters were added to the election rolls, which counted nearly 94 million people. Yet on election day, fewer than 25 million Nigerians cast ballots. Why?

“In addition to the delayed opening of polling stations—which was a particular problem in opposition strongholds—electoral violence also threatened participation. Attacks on polling stations, theft and destruction of ballot boxes, and attacks on tabulation centers contributed to depressed turnout and voter disenfranchisement, particularly in opposition strongholds in Nigeria’s South-East and South-South zones. This came on the heels of deteriorating security nationwide and months of political violence, with at least 18 assassinations or assassination attempts on candidates and party leaders.

“Nigerian President-elect Bola Tinubu (R) and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Mahmood Yakubu (L) look on during the presentation of the certificate of return to the president-elect by the INEC in Abuja on March 1.

“Critically, INEC failed to conduct a national stress test of a new electronic transmission system before election day, something our mission’s pre-election assessment had recommended. INEC promised that the presidential election results would be transmitted from polling stations to INEC’s portal on election day—but by the day’s end, only a small share of the results had been uploaded, and polling officers reported numerous issues uploading results to the system. The system’s failure and INEC’s lack of transparency concerning the cause only fueled many citizens’ frustration and skepticism about the quality of the election.

“INEC should immediately complete the upload of all presidential election results to the electronic portal and provide a full, transparent account of what went awry in transmitting those results on election day. It should also provide a list of canceled polling stations on election day. Additionally, INEC and the relevant state election authorities must investigate evidence of manipulation in Rivers and Imo states, where parallel vote tabulation suggests a high likelihood that the reported results are fraudulent.

“The perpetrators of election violence must be held accountable. Very few arrests have been made so far, and political parties have not taken any steps to address such behavior among their supporters. Failure to treat this seriously will only normalize impunity and more political violence in the future.

“When the dust settles on the February presidential election, the real heroes will be the citizens—many of them first-time voters—who braved often difficult odds to make their voices heard at the ballot box, as well as civil society groups that engaged in meaningful civic and voter education programs and election monitoring. Nigerian authorities should take urgent action to account for election irregularities and make future elections stronger. The international community cannot afford to give up on Nigeria’s vast democratic promise. Realizing that promise is vital not only for millions of Nigerians, but for the security and prosperity of a future Africa.”

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