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The 2023 presidential election and the future of Nigerian democracy

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Picture: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP – Labour Party’s Presidential candidate Peter Obi, flanked by his running mate Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed during a campaign rally at Adamasingba Stadium in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria, on November 23, 2022, ahead of the 2023 Nigerian presidential election.

By Oluwaseun Tella and Adeoye O Akinola

On 25 February, Nigeria will head to the polls to elect its president. The main candidates: Bola Tinubu, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, will represent the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party (LP), respectively.

Given Nigeria’s status as the largest economy and one of the most important peacemakers on the continent, the results of the election will have wider implications for Africa and beyond. It is against this backdrop that the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK) and UJ’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) held a meeting on 16 February in the form of a webinar titled “The 2023 Presidential Election and the Future of Nigerian Democracy”.

Dr Oluwaseun Tella, Head of the Future of Diplomacy at IFK opened the lively discussion. Ms Idayat Hassan, Director, Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Nigeria, chaired the event. The speakers comprised Professor Remi Aiyede, Department of Political Science, University of Ibadan, Nigeria; Professor Kayode Eesuola, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of African and Diaspora Studies, University of Lagos, Nigeria; and Professor Eghosa Osaghae, Director-General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, Nigeria. Dr Adeoye O. Akinola, Head of Research and Teaching at IPATC closed the meeting.

In his welcoming remarks, Tella identified Nigeria’s internal and external challenges such as insecurity, political corruption, high levels of unemployment and poverty, and a declining influence in international politics. He added that the incoming President will have to tackle these challenges in order to strengthen Nigeria’s democracy and enhance its international profile.

In her opening remarks, Hassan noted that the election would be determined by 4Is: identity, insecurity, information and institutions. She highlighted that the frontrunners represent the three major ethnic groups in the country – Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. While Tinubu and Abubakar are Muslims, Obi is a Christian. Regarding insecurity, she noted that Nigeria is bedevilled by insecurity across the country, ranging from Boko Haram terrorism to banditry, kidnapping and separatist agitation that can potentially undermine the capacity of the electoral body, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to conduct credible elections. She added that the integrity of information (including traditional and social media), as well as the role of institutions most especially INEC are critical.

Focusing on party politics, Aiyede described how the Nigerian party system – a majoritarian system – had engendered the emergence of two dominant political parties since 1999. He reflected on how the 1993 botched electioneering process also produced two candidates – MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRP).

However, in the lead up to this week’s election, voters are confronted with the emergence of a third force in the form of Peter Obi’s Labour Party (LP) igniting the buzzword – a three horse race – in the electioneering campaign. He noted several factors that have enabled the LP to gain traction including some citizens’ sympathy for the South East, given that it remains the only zone in the South that has not occupied the seat of the President, as well as some citizens’ dissatisfaction with the performances of both the PDP and APC.

He, however, noted that in terms of experience, resources, and national reach, Tinubu’s and Abubakar’s credentials dwarf those of Obi.

Eesuola engaged the topic from the prism of ethnic and religious identities using an analogy of a “coffin” or a straitjacket, which underscores how ethnicity and religion have overshadowed critical national questions. This has constrained successive Nigerian Presidents to deliver on their electoral promises. Indeed, ethnic and religious cleavages have stiffened the political space and created coercive electoral and political systems.

He added that efforts by successive Nigerian governments to address the situation such as the establishment of the National Orientation Agency, the Federal Character Commission and the Public Complaints Commission have yielded minimal results. It is thus imperative for the incoming government to create legislations to manage ethnicity and make religion a private affair.

Osaghae examined the implication of the election on Nigeria’s external affairs, noting that the three major candidates have largely ignored Nigeria’s foreign policy during their electoral campaigns. However, he noted that there would be no radical departure from the Afrocentric nature that forms the fulcrum of Nigeria’s external relations.

Indeed, Nigeria’s foreign policy will continue to be determined by concentric circles that reflect the geopolitics of the country’s location. This implies that Abuja will continue to prioritise West Africa, Africa, the Global South and the Global Community, in that order. Nigeria will continue to promote multilateralism through the United Nations (UN) and regional organisations such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) as the platforms for global governance and security.

He added that the line between Nigeria’s domestic and international affairs is increasingly blurred as addressing the country’s domestic challenges such as Boko Haram terrorism, kidnapping and banditry require collaborative efforts with other actors including African states, the European Union (EU), Russia, China and the United States.

In his closing remarks, Akinola noted that the election would be held despite the country’s economic challenges, social alienation, and pervasive insecurity. These bottlenecks have been compounded by the ongoing fuel scarcity and cash crunch, which have put the citizens on the edge of violent protests.

This has ignited political participation among the youth as they account for 48 million out of 93.5 million eligible voters. However, it remains to be seen if they will take the bull by the horns and vote en masse for the candidate whose programmes resonate with their aspirations.

Oluwaseun Tella is the Head of the Future of Diplomacy at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge. Adeoye O. Akinola is the Head of Research and Teaching at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.