A Chance to Reset: Nigeria After the 2023 General Election

Moment of triumph: president-elect Bola Tinubu celebrates with his supporters after his victory in Nigeria's election. Image: Emma Osodi / Alamy

Can Nigeria’s incoming administration grapple with the urgent problems facing the country and foster a process of national reconciliation?

The build-up to the 2023 general election in Nigeria was fraught with uncertainty. This was largely a result of the past experiences of the Nigerian electorate, many of whom have a long-held belief that their votes do not count. This belief stems from a feeling of powerlessness to determine their elected leaders at various levels.

Subjected to over three decades of military rule after its independence in 1960, Nigeria – which is Africa’s largest country by GDP and population size – has witnessed a series of general elections in recent times. Since the return of democracy which heralded the start of its Fourth Republic in 1999, the country has now held 10 general elections. While some of these elections have been characterised by irregularities, others have been outright abysmal. Such was the case with the 2007 general election that brought the late President Umar Musa Yar’Adua into office. Yar’Adua would eventually acknowledge that the election was nothing close to being free and fair. This led to his decision to prioritise electoral reforms.

Nigeria’s 2023 general election was one of the most keenly contested elections in the country’s history. In 2015, the election of President Muhammadu Buhari was seen by many Nigerians as an opportunity to reset the country’s affairs after a steep slide into backwardness, due to what was perceived as the gross incompetence of the previous administration. The Buhari administration promised to tackle security issues, particularly the persistent threat posed by Boko Haram and its breakaway faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), in the northeast. Other promises which won over the hearts and minds of Nigerians at the time included fighting corruption and prioritising the economy.

Nigeria has made little progress on the economic front in the past eight years, with a high debt profile and a consistent rise in inflation

Eight years on, while Nigeria has made some significant progress in degrading Boko Haram and ISWAP, President Buhari’s claim that the insurgency has been ‘technically defeated’ has been disputed in several quarters, including among policy analysts and commentators. Similarly, the fight against corruption has mostly been perceived as ‘selective’ and politically motivated. In addition, the country has not made much progress on the economic front in the past eight years, with a high debt profile and a consistent rise in inflation. This has brought significant economic hardship on Nigerians. A recently published report from the National Bureau of Statistics contends that over half the population live in multidimensional poverty.

Beyond its apparent failure to deliver on some of its promises, other challenges have emerged under the Buhari administration. In the northwest, for instance, the nefarious activities of armed bandits have claimed the lives of thousands and led to the forced displacement of many others. Recent years have seen increased secessionist agitations from the Indigenous People of Biafra and atrocities perpetrated by its paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network, as well as Yoruba Nation agitators. Concerns over the administration’s handling of the #EndSARS movement also drove a wedge in state-society relations, particularly between the government and young people, who were protesting police brutality that they claimed was mostly targeted at them. Another more recent example is the timing of the ill-informed cashless policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria, which has not only created a cash crunch across the country, but has also partly damaged Nigeria’s informal economy, impacting small businesses and subsistence households.

The 2023 general election therefore offered Nigerians an opportunity to elect a fresh set of political leaders. Assurances given by the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) prior to the elections through the introduction of technologically driven interventions such as the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System and INEC Result Viewing Portal were intended to guarantee the credibility of the voting process. These initial assurances contributed to the enthusiasm of first-time voters, with over 9.5 million registering to vote. Another significant dynamic which characterised the build-up to the general election was the sudden emergence of a populist candidate in the person of Peter Obi of the Labour Party and his ‘Obedient Movement’, marking a paradigm shift in the traditional two-party electioneering process that has come to characterise Nigeria’s general elections.

The task which must be prioritised by the incoming administration is the need to earn its legitimacy, especially given the mood of disenchantment and distrust that has greeted its emergence

With the 2023 general election now concluded, Nigeria must start a process of national reconciliation. This presents a significant opportunity for the country to prioritise pertinent issues that have held it back for so many years, including socio-economic issues, political tensions, ethno-religious grievances and communal violence, among others. In a recent press briefing, the president-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who belongs to the ruling All Progressives Congress, has called for a healing process to begin. The onerous task which must be prioritised by the incoming administration is the need to earn its legitimacy, especially given the current mood of disenchantment and distrust that has greeted its emergence. Through deliberate acts of political inclusivity and magnanimity, this can and must be done.

Short of a perfect election, however, Nigeria’s 2023 general election offers the country some opportunities on both the domestic and international front. Domestically, the ushering in of a new administration on 29 May 2023 will herald a much-needed critical reset. The incoming administration must prioritise core issues including the urgent need to diversify the economy away from its current overdependence on oil; the setting of robust monetary and fiscal policies; poverty amelioration; the creation of jobs for Nigeria’s burgeoning youth; and the fast-tracking of a decentralised policing framework, in addition to other targeted security sector reforms. On the international front, the holding of a ‘successful’ election – however imperfect – in Africa’s largest democracy sends a strong message across West Africa, which has in recent times witnessed a wave of democratic backsliding owing to military coups and counter-coups. Such a message is critical to fostering political stability across this fragile region. The rise and spread of jihadism in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel regions, which poses a real threat to Nigeria’s national security and has consequences for regional peace and security, implies that Nigeria will need to reinvigorate its geostrategic leadership role in the region sooner rather than later.

As Nigerians, the rest of Africa and the international community look towards what the incoming administration has to offer, business as usual must take a back seat. The task of nation-building and national reconciliation that lies ahead is one that must be approached with the utmost seriousness. The stakes are high, and the incoming administration has little time to turn the tide. How well it manages this will determine its success or failure.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Fola Aina

Associate Fellow; International security analyst and researcher

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