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Apathy reigns supreme in Nigeria’s fledgling democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari gestures as he arrives to cast a vote in Nigeria's presidential election at a polling station in Daura, Katsina State, Nigeria, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/File Photo

After a one-week delay, it finally happened. Despite murmurings of further postponements, Nigeria’s presidential and national assembly elections were held on Saturday 23 February with one of the worst turnouts in the country’s history. The results were announced in the early hours of this morning.

The winner? Seventy-six-year-old incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All People’s Congress remains President, elected by a healthy margin of almost four million votes or 57.4 per cent of votes cast. His party also swept the national legislative elections, winning 47 Senate and 75 House of Representatives seats out of a total 73 and 105 seats up for election.

Within hours, his main opponent Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party rejected the result, alleging widespread electoral malpractice.

Buhari had previously served as Nigeria’s head of state, taking power in a December 1983 military coup before being overthrown himself by another coup in August 1985.

After running for the presidency in the 2003, 2007 and 2011 elections, he succeeded in the fourth attempt and was swept into power by a margin of over 2.5 million votes.

His campaign spurred a tide of confidence that Buhari could bring back peace and security, address corruption and create jobs and economic prospects. The 2015 elections were the first time power had changed hands non-violently since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999.

But this initial optimism waned considerably over Buhari’s four-year term, months of which he spent abroad seeking medical treatment. While the Nigerian military made considerable gains in recovering territory from armed opposition groups in the country’s northeast, attacks and violence continue until the present day.

Since late last December, fighters have been launching a number of attacks on military bases, seizing weaponry and medical supplies which has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people to neighbouring towns, state capitals and even across international borders in Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The convoy of Kashim Shettima, one of Nigeria’s state governors, was attacked two weeks ago as he was on his way back from an election rally. As many as 100 people are estimated to have died and between 100 and 200 people taken captive.

Hours before polls were due to open, blasts and gunfire were heard in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Hundreds of people fled Geidam, another town in northeast Nigeria, after a reported attack.

Buhari’s first term also saw insecurity across the country due to rural banditry and inter-communal violence between farmers and pastoralists. There were also protests calling for an independent Biafra and violence against the Shi’a Islamic Movement of Nigeria, with unarmed protesters being shot by soldiers in the nation’s capital Abuja. The presidency set up a commission to investigate military human rights violations but its report has yet to be made publicly available.

Buhari’s administration made some progress in ensuring a social safety net for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society. He also focused on fighting corruption with high-profile investigations and systems put in to place to encourage whistle blowers. Yet his critics noted that key allies suspected of corruption remained unpunished.

But, fundamentally, Buhari has not been able to live up to the high expectations his election campaign stirred. As a result, this time around, hopes were dimmer than in 2015.

This change was reflected in voter turnout. While numbers of those registered to vote rose from 67 million in 2015 to 84 million voters in 2019, turnout dropped from 44 per cent to 35.6 per cent. Many of those who had travelled home to vote last weekend were unable to do so again given the last-minute postponement of elections.US election observers said this delay had probably reduced turnout.

But turnout, along with trust in the political system, has been steadily declining from nearly 70 per cent since 2003.

Across the country, elections this weekend were marred by reports of vote buying, intimidation, failures of card readers which accredit voters and late opening of many polling stations – all leading to voting continuing on Sunday. Civil society monitors reported that more than 260 people had been killed since the start of campaigning in October, with 47 people killed during and after voting this weekend.

Against this backdrop came runner-up Atiku’s response to the results. Before voting had even taken place, he was widely expected to challenge any declaration of Buhari’s victory.

Producing documentary evidence, he alleged that ‘there were manifest and premeditated malpractices in many states, which negate the results announced’. He claimed suppressed and disrupted voting in his strongholds and announced his intention to challenge the results in court.

Any such challenge brings into relief a decision made by President Buhari weeks before the elections. He suspended Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, the head of the judiciary, less than 24 hours before he was to swear in members of election tribunals.

Of course, Atiku himself is hardly a beacon of hope. A former vice president from 1999 to 2007, this election was his fourth time running for the presidency. His candidacy has been marred by accusations of financial impropriety and widespread corruption.

Although these charges have never been tried in court, and Atiku rejects them as being politically motivated, many voters remember allegations from his previous time in office of diversion of public funds into personal business interests and bank accounts.

These memories were reinforced during the campaign when he stated he would enrich his friends if elected and committed to privatizing the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, an easy way of gaining personal income by selling off a national asset in an oil-reliant economy.

Faced with unenviable choices in this election, it is not surprising many Nigerians chose to stay at home.

Politicians who switch parties for personal gain and run campaigns based on slogans rather than credible political platforms make it difficult to vote on the basis of anything other than personality, ethnic, religious or regional loyalties.

But, the process of democratic consolidation is not smooth and only 20 years in, Nigeria is still a fledgling democracy.



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