Beyond Contentious Elections in Nigeria
Nigerian elections have often been marred by disruptive practices. As I wrote in The Chicago Tribune on March 15, 2023, the collapse of the country’s first three
republics was associated with contentious elections. Strengthening electoral integrity should be high on the nation’s agenda after twenty-four years of constitutional government.
During a roundtable on the 2023 national elections at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) on April 13, I advanced several ideas. They are expanded
The voting process attracted more attention globally than any previous electoral contest in Nigeria. As a consequence of sustained outward migration, especially of young persons, and the expansion of social media, views and perceptions ricochet between domestic and external communities. Strengthening electoral integrity can benefit from oversees experiences.
An incremental approach to improving electoral integrity has been recommended by Professors Rotimi Suberu and Jibrin Ibrahim. Prof. Suberu has advocated this approach in many published essays. It was also proposed by Prof. Ibrahim during The Toyin Falola Interview of April 16, 2023. Account should be taken, he contends, of where voting occurred in a satisfactory manner. Shortcomings in various location should not overshadow these achievements.
Following the first round of voting on February 25, 2023, I wrote that “much is at stake in how this combustible situation in Africa’s largest democracy is handled.” While the outcome of many elections in the Fourth Republic has been disputed, it did not provoke – as in the United States after the November 2020 elections - unconstitutional responses. One of the participants in the April 16 Falola Interview questioned whether Nigeria should invest huge sums to conduct elections that invariably generate disharmony. As costly and disruptive as they may appear, the alternatives - civil war, resumed military rule, or anarchy – are far more calamitous.
Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) functions in political, social and economic contexts that pose daunting challenges. The credibility of elections depends on the professional, legal, and ethical conduct of thousands of administrators and temporary employees. It has often been remarked that INEC set a high standard of expectation for the 2023 elections which it failed to achieve. Prince Adewole Adebayo, presidential contender of the Social Democratic Party, humorously referred to a dilemma during the NIIA’s April 13 roundtable. Despite the promises made by INEC chairman Prof. Mahmood Yadudu, electoral officers in this decentralized institution were not immune to financial inducements.
In a videotaped interview, the late Prof. Ayo Olukotun voiced skepticism that the 2023 elections would reverse the downward trend in many spheres of Nigerian life. As criticisms were lodged against electoral officers and politicians, ideas for a better performing Nigeria were advanced. A common theme emerged: “What is needed for Nigeria, and Nigerians, to perform better in major endeavors?” National elections represent such an endeavor, as well as being an essential gateway to “a democracy that works”.
The 2023 elections induced me to revisit my writings concerning previous contests. I was surprised by points earlier made. For example, much of an essay written ahead of the 2011 elections can be applied with minimal changes to the 2023 contests: “The 2011 elections provide an opportunity for Nigerians to reclaim their democracy through neutralizing the efforts of politicians to distort and disrupt the voting process. From manipulated subjects, they can become active and alert citizens. They can be empowered to give birth to a new electoral democracy and demand greater performance and accountability of office-holders…The time has come to make good on a fifty-year promise and the elections of 2011 is the moment to start.” I called in that article for “the creation of a pan-Nigerian movement of civic and other organizations to work for free, fair, and credible elections.” Nigerians are activated, as never before, to have their voting rights treated as sacrosanct. Vote-buying, thuggery, altering of ballot results, and other long-deplored forms of electoral misconduct, should be retired from the political arena.
Conclusion: Moving Beyond Contentious Elections
Since the global resurgence of democracy at the end of the 1980s, African countries have moved in different political directions. Some have held elections that are ritualistic and pose no threat to existing regimes. Others, as Sudan, became stuck between electoral democracy and militarized power with tragic consequences. In several countries such as Ghana, citizens regularly decide who among contesting parties and individuals will be vested with governmental authority.
As new ranks of elected officials embark on their tenures at federal and state levels, a major exercise can be conducted to distill lessons from the 2023 voting.
Prof. Adele Jinadu, in his comprehensive presentation to the NIIA roundtable, provided a roadmap for such a process. His call for a “civil society-led public interest agenda” to be overseen by a “National Network for Electoral Reform”, and anchored to “the right of citizens”, echoes my 2011 proposal.
Nigeria has, once again, the opportunity to become a leading nation in building democracy and pursuing inclusive development. A deleted sentence in a draft of my Chicago Tribune article reads: “Nigeria has been on the cusp of transitioning to a fully representative democracy on many occasions only to fall short.” “Falling short” is no longer acceptable after a quarter-century of the Fourth Republic. Many Nigerians, especially youths, insist on taking this vital step forward.
 These comments draw on several engagements including a Walter Rodney seminar on the elections convened by the African Studies Center (ASC) of Boston University on April 3, 2023.
 A recording of this program is available on YouTube.
 “Nigeria’s electoral democracy seeks to find footing after contentious election”, The Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2023. It was made available online on March 15.
 A highly cautionary tale is provided by the devastating warfare in Sudan. Much can be learned from prior Nigerian electoral experiences. See, for example, chapters 10 and 11 on the 1983 elections in Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The rise and fall of the Second Republic (Cambridge University Press and Spectrum Books, 1987/1991).
 This is the title of the first chapter of Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria.