Witnessing Nigeria's Presidential Election
On March 1, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission declared Bola Tinubu the winner of the presidential election held on February 25th. The new president-elect from the incumbent All Progressives Congress won approximately 37% of the vote. Worryingly, voter turnout was only 27%, the lowest in any of Nigeria’s presidential elections.
Any nationwide election is a complex affair, with the dual goals of attracting as many people to the polls as possible while ensuring the integrity of the vote. In Nigeria, a sprawling country of more than 200 million people with limited infrastructure and financial resources and substantial volatility in some regions, nationwide elections every four years are a herculean undertaking.
The fact elections are held on a regular basis in a country with a history of coups and military dictatorship indicates substantial democratic progress. Equally important, Nigeria’s incumbent president, Muhamadu Buhari (himself a former military leader), is stepping down after reaching the constitutional limit of serving two terms, a stark contrast to African heads of state who change term limits extending their time in office.
As part of an international observation team organized by the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, I had the privilege of witnessing Nigeria’s February 25th presidential elections. The stakes were high: with Buhari retiring, the presidency was up for grabs. In contrast to previous presidential elections dominated by two large political parties, in this race Peter Obi, a third party candidate supported by a large number of young Nigerians, was a serious contender.
After two days of training in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, a fellow observer and I traveled south to Ebonyi, one of Nigeria’s 36 states. For the people of Ebonyi in particular, this was a massive election. Heavily populated by the Igbo, an ethnic group who has long felt marginalized and mistreated, they now boasted one of their own, Obi, as a serious presidential candidate.
We spent the days before the election consulting with a wide range of stakeholders in the Ebonyi capital, Abakaliki, speaking with everyone from the state election commission to the police commissioner to political party chairmen to religious leaders. On election day we arrived at our first polling place well before the scheduled 8:30 am opening to find...very little. Throughout Abakaliki, as well as elsewhere in the country, polling places were slow to open due to a combination of factors. Difficulty transporting poll workers and materials, partly due to a nationwide fuel shortage, caused major delays.
The pace picked up throughout the day. We visited about a dozen polling places overall, many of them located on school grounds and all of them outdoors as the temperature crept higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We saw a wide range of order - and disorder - across the dozen polling places. Some ran with precision while others were overcrowded, chaotic scenes. It was inspiring to see many of the polling places run by youth (Nigeria relies on its National Youth Service for poll workers). Given a tall task, they did admirable work.
This election used lightly-tested biometric voter identification machines to check voters in, a slow process that resulted in people standing in line in the sun for hours. Workers thoughtfully moved the elderly, pregnant and people with disabilities to the front of the line. As documented by the initial report from the election observation mission, the election had substantial procedural flaws, many of which we witnessed.
Polls slated to close at 2:30 pm (a mere six hours of scheduled voting time) stayed open longer to accommodate the late start. The election commission extended voting in some states to the following day. Once voting concluded, the process of tallying votes was a communal affair. Poll workers held up ballots so onlookers and agents from the political parties could see which candidate was selected, and many people counted out loud together as the votes for each candidate were added up.
The conclusion reached by the observation mission - “the election fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations” - suggests that democratic progress in Nigeria is at a standstill. Nonetheless, what we saw from the voters who endured the delays and disorder was an inspiring commitment to show up for the democratic process under difficult conditions.