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7 Things That Nigeria's Election Can Teach Us About Commonwealth Africa

For those of us with a long-time interest in African politics, Nigeria's recent general election provoked mixed feelings. For one, to see detailed reporting and commentary on an election in West Africa was refreshing. That respected global institutions like the BBC, CNN, and the Washington Post were covering Nigeria's election is a sign of the West's slow realisation that it can no longer plead ignorance where Africa is concerned. Nigeria is set to be the world's third most populous country by 2050, and according to PwC, could be a top 10 global economy. Understanding politics there today is key to establishing a productive partnership in the future. However, while beggars ought never to be choosers, it was hard to shake the feeling that this coverage often missed the wood for the trees. Otherwise respected journalists drew on shaky sources, making amateur mistakes and Western-oriented assumptions which weren't reflected on the ground.

So, what happened? After all, not all of you have the time or interest to spend your evenings following the latest ballot drops from Abeokuta. On February 25th, Nigerians went to the polls to elect a House of Representatives, a Senate, and a President, as well as a number of state-level positions. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari has suffered consistently low approval ratings throughout his time in office, owing mainly to perceptions of corruption and a failure to address the country's sluggish economic growth. He has also come under fire for a seven month ban on the use of Twitter and for failing to address an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the country's north-east. His party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has been in power since his first election in 2015. After a long process of primary elections, the APC nominated 70-year old Bola Tinubu as his successor. Tinubu served as Governor of Lagos, the country's largest city, from 1999 to 2007, and has led a career marked by success in delivering better public services and marred by repeated accusations of corruption. The country's largest opposition force, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), nominated former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. The PDP ruled Nigeria from 1999 until 2015, and are widely regarded as the party of the political establishment. Like Tinubu, Abubakar has been subject to a number of allegations of corruption and mismanagement of state funds, but maintains a base of loyal support in certain quarters. However, disrupting what was supposed to be a straightforward head-to-head was dynamic and charismatic businessman Peter Obi. Obi, formerly the Governor of Anambra state, came out of the woodwork and joined the tiny Labour Party, running a populist campaign which promised to smash corruption and deliver for Nigeria's young people. Obi had previously been bested by Abubakar in the PDP's candidate selection process, defecting to and co-opting much smaller Labour Party as an electoral vehicle. In a country nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, Obi also drew support from Christians incensed by the fact that the two major parties had both nominated a Muslim candidate. As election day grew closer, polls suggested that the insurgent Obi would sweep to victory on a tide of youth support - when election day came, he pulled in just over 25% of the vote. Abubakar won around 29%, and Tinubu came out on top with just shy of 37%. As of the time of writing, the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission has verified that Bola Tinubu will be inaugurated as Nigeria's 16th President, on May 29th 2023. So why all the fuss?

There is far more to this story than the top-level result. This year's election in West Africa's largest democracy can teach us about what the future holds for Nigeria, why Western commentators often get it so wrong - and what part the Commonwealth has to play in all of this. Here are 7 things that Nigeria's 2023 elections can teach us about Commonwealth Africa.

1. African politics is not Western politics

As simple as it sounds, the first lesson to learn is that African politics simply is not Western politics. From the issues of the campaign to the style of the candidates, Western commentators would do well to stop framing politics in Africa in terms familiar to their readers. For a start, ideological party politics plays little role in Nigeria. Instead, ideas like service delivery, political corruption, and effective governance are far more influential than philosophical debates on the virtues or otherwise of the free market. That's not to say that these ideas don't also characterise politics in Britain, Canada, or Australia, but there is certainly less ideological coherence and consistency in Nigeria's major parties. There are also far starker underlying demographic divisions. Not only is Nigeria almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, but it's also incredibly ethnically diverse, with different tribes and cultures concentrated in different areas. In 2023, each of the major candidates represented one of the country's three largest ethnic groups - Abubakar is Hausa (25% of the population), Tinubu is Yoruba (21%), and Obi is Igbo (18%). Often, these cultural identifications are far stronger than the institutional, pan-cultural 'Nigerian' identity, a fact reflected in the relative performances of the major candidates. Over 90% of people in Nigeria's South East are Igbo - here, Obi won over 87% of the vote. In the predominantly Hausa North West, he won a little over 5% of the vote. This sort of partisan gulf puts even the highly-polarised US to shame, highlighting the lasting influence of tribe and culture in Nigerian politics. There is also a security dimension to all of this. Since the late 1990s, Nigeria's northeast has been beset by Islamist, separatist, and bandit violence, while pirates have recently resurfaced as a serious issue in the Gulf of Guinea. While British politicians with less than favourable electoral prospects love to talk about 'law and order', the story is different in Nigeria, where vast swathes of the country are under near-constant security lockdown, suffering daily attacks from organised and dangerous terrorist groups. Whether or not Buhari is seen to have delivered on his security promises, leveraging the security issue proved to be a powerful tool for the ruling APC. It's difficult to vote for change when your primary concern is whether or not the state can keep you safe.

This election wasn't conservative versus liberal, free market versus planned economy, young versus old - it was about corruption, service delivery, tribal allegiance, and existential national security concerns.

2. You can’t always trust the media, the internet – or the diaspora

In September 2022, Bloomberg and Premise Data conducted a poll which saw Peter Obi drawing 72% support. Closer to election day, in mid-February, Redfield & Wilton published a poll which saw him set to win 62% of the vote. On the day, he won nearer 25%. These numbers look comedically inaccurate, entirely divorced from the situation on the ground in Nigeria, and now look like they could have been plucked from thin air. Article after article, poll after poll, was confident of an Obi victory. Of the ten reputable polls conducted in the run-up to the election, just one predicted a Tinubu victory. This December 2022 poll from SBM Intelligence came closest to predicting the election, but was regarded by most as an outlier. Most of the people that I spoke to in Parliament, the press, and even the Foreign Office were absolutely sure that Obi would win. They were completely wrong. This is partly due to the poor quality information available to pollsters. Almost half of Nigerians live in hard-to-reach rural areas, and communications technology does not have anything like the reach that it does in the West. We would also do well to remember that accurate polling and election data is a relatively new phenomenon, even in Europe and North America. It was only in the mid-1970s that British polling became consistently reliable, with much of the non-English speaking world taking another decade or two to get it right. But, more importantly, it's also to do with how the Western media engages with Nigeria, through the internet and through diaspora populations. As of 2022, some estimates indicate that as little as 19% of Nigerians have consistently good internet access. An even smaller amount are likely to be posting about politics on Twitter, and yet this group of younger, more liberal, more reformist Nigerians shaped far too much of the dialogue here in London. Not only that, but the views of the Nigerian diaspora disproportionately shape Western opinion of the country. Over 215,000 Nigerians live in the UK, with a further 111,000+ in Canada, and more than 2 million in the United States. Those are all too often the voices which lead TV discussions, write think-pieces, and dominate Twitter feeds.

At a basic level, those who leave a country are fairly likely to disagree with that country's direction. Not only that but many, particularly those who are second or third generation immigrants, have less of a connection to Nigeria than you might first suspect. Some visit only occassionally, maintaining distant connections to families who are themselves members of the country's urban elite.

Listen carefully to the views of the diaspora, but take that perspective with a pinch of salt. Those of us who are interested in Nigeria must get much better at understanding that Twitter feeds have little to do with what's happening on the streets of Lagos. We should also accept that the ability to predict events in Africa is decades behind the capabilities of Western pollsters - adjust your expectations accordingly, and stop trying to preempt that which cannot be preemtped.

3. The next generation might bring change – but not just yet

Any Peter Obi think-piece worth its salt will highlight the fact that Obi's support trended younger. Over 70% of Nigerians are under 30. So how can we explain the fact that he underperformed virtually every poll?

In part, this is because that 70% figure masks the fact that 42% of Nigerians are under the age of 15. Only about 25% of Nigerians are young but eligible to vote, and that's before you even begin to consider the deep importance of ethno-religious allegiances. But this is about more than voting eligibility.

In Nigeria, as in much of West Africa, there is an ingrained sense of loyalty to elders, and to established figures of authority. In fact, reinforcing this culture was a pet cause of President Buhari. Established parties and experienced, respected figures commanded respect in this election, regardless of their faults. Particularly in rural Nigeria, the power of the familiar moved the dial much more than grand promises of reform. Those interested in fostering closer relationships with Nigeria often hope that a new, reformist generation will break through, sweeping away the old order and enabling a newer and more dynamic relationship. While the next generation of Nigerians will certainly be different to the last, with a more global, digital outlook and a more reformist approach to governance, there is no way to avoid engaging closely with established powers, respected elder statesmen, and existing institutions. Closer engagement with Nigeria can't wait for younger Nigerians, even if building links now will mean compromise.

The young radicals of today will go on to become the respected, if staid, figures of the future. Just look at Buhari. Once regarded as an unpalatable radical, Buhari finally won the Presidency at the age of 73 in 2015, his fourth attempt. We must court the Buharis of the future if we want to maintain a foothold in Nigeria, but not at the expense of dealing with political figures who already wield influence.

Peter Obi energized young voters - but couldn't get them to turn out (Taiwo Aina for the New York Times)

4. Institutional engagement is in crisis

Much of the coverage of this election was characterised by expectations of high turnout and renewed enthusiasm. In reality, less than 27% of Nigerians turned out to vote, down from 34% in 2019 and 43% in 2015. You have to go back to 2011 to find an election at which a majority of eligible Nigerians turned out to vote. Following the announcement of Tinubu's victory, Obi and Abubakar have announced their intention to challenge the results. "The good and hard-working people of Nigeria have again been robbed by our supposed leaders whom they trusted" said Obi at a recent press conference. While concerns have been raised by international observers over election conduct, there are very few who claim that these discrepancies constitute significant election interference. Whether or not the opposition in their challenge is successful is besides the point - public trust in Nigeria's institutions is weak. In a country of 213 million, facing low-level insurgency and with five military coups to its name since independence, Nigerian institutions must prove themselves to be robust and stable. Crucially, they must win back public trust. The Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission (INEC) has drawn criticism both domestically and internationally for its handling of the election and its rollout of the country's new electronic voting software.

The Commonwealth has a role to play here, should it choose to step up and deliver. In Australia, disabled and impaired voters have cast their votes electronically since 2007. The Australian Electoral Commission, and its counterparts in the UK, Singapore, Canada, and New Zealand, are in prime position to leverage their expertise, and advise INEC on how to shore up public trust and entrench best practice. Meanwhile, India's Electoral Commission - regarded highly for impartiality, consistency, and logistical efficiency - regularly oversees elections in a large, diverse, geographically difficult country, often via the use of electronic systems. In 2019, the IEC handled the voting data of more than 610 million Indians, from the rugged Himalayas to the tropical climbs of Tamil Nadu. Again, using Commonwealth links as a pretext for dialogue, INEC could learn from India's excellent example and ensure that the next election is a success, logistically and optically. Institutional failure is all too often a precursor to state failure, and to the breakdown of societal order. Such a collapse in a large, diverse, oil-rich country would be disastrous for Africa, for the world at large, and for ordinary Nigerians. Commonwealth countries with a record of institutional stability and effectiveness would do well to intervene now with advice and technical support, helping to stabilise and strengthen Nigeria's institutions.

5. The urban/rural divide is one to watch

In 1950, the city of Lagos was home to 325,218 Nigerians - today, it houses nearly than 16 million. If current trends hold, Lagos could one day become the world's largest city. Rapid urbanisation has dramatically changed the character of Lagos, and has brought to bear all manner of challenges. Many Lagosians live in sprawling informal communities; much of the population growth is driven by young rural Nigerians who move to the big city to seek opportunity. This puts a significant strain on the city's infrastructure, from transport systems to schools to sewage and sanitation. While projects like the newly-opened Lagos Metro seek to address the gap between the city's population and its capacity, the rapidly swelling cities of Nigeria's coast struggle under the sheer weight of the population influx. This has political implications, too. Urban voters have significantly different concerns and perspectives to their rural counterparts, a divide which increasingly seems to characterise politics around the world. As Africa's population becomes more urban, we can also expect it to become more prosperous, more well-connected, and more global. In turn, we might expect voters to become more liberal, less religious, and increasingly divorced from their communities of origin out in the provinces. It's notable that the populist, reformist Obi won only a handful of states outside of his Igbo heartland. He scored a narrow upset victory in Lagos State, where Tinubu previously served as Governor, and won out by a clear margin in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. The migration of Igbos to these areas has a part to play, but so does the fact that Obi's politics were significantly more urban-aligned than those of Tinubu and Abubakar. Development aid must account for a rapid rise in city-dwellers, and must get better at addressing the challenges that they face. The Commonwealth is good at identifying the need for better rail and road connections between disparate rural populations, but has less experience in supporting ballooning urban populations. However, it must learn these skills quickly - the same story is playing out across Africa (and, indeed, in South Asia), and the Commonwealth has an important part to play in building the necessary capacity. Failure to do so will open the door for the Chinese, who have ample experience in accounting for significant, sustained urbanisation. The decision to purchase Chinese-built trains is a sign that Beijing is already ahead of the curve on helping Nigeria to address rapid urbanisation.

The new Lagos Light Rail system - a symbol of the city's exploding population

6. Nigeria has the potential to shape the 21st century for West Africa and the Commonwealth

Despite all of the issues outlined above, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Nigeria still has the potential to shape the 21st century for both West Africa and the Commonwealth. The fact that this election garnered international attention at all is a sign of shifting sands, and the development of a dynamic political culture which is starting to talk seriously about issues like corruption and providing opportunity for younger Nigerians can only be a positive thing. In addition to the striking population and economic projections mentioned above, we would do well to bear in mind that Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is headquartered in Abuja. Nigeria's stability and future prosperity is not just a part of the future global picture, it lies at the very heart of the future regional landscape. In the 1990s, that forum was instrumental in leading intervention in Sierra Leone and Liberia and since 2017, ECOWAS troops have been stationed in The Gambia, helping that country transition towards stable democracy. A strong Commonwealth in Africa is only possible with a strong ECOWAS serving as a bulwark for Commonwealth values. A strong ECOWAS can only rise to that challenge with a strong Nigeria at its heart.

The story of West Africa's ability to tackle cross-border terrorist insurgency, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and regional economic integration will be written in Nigeria. That's to say nothing of the broader implications for the African continent, particularly for Commonwealth partners in Cameroon and Gabon. Those of us interested in the Commonwealth need to be following this issue much more closely.

7. The Commonwealth is (still) a trusted, valued institution with high-level access

Stepping back, this election is a reminder of the trusted, valued role that the Commonwealth plays around the world.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki answers questions following the Commonwealth Election Observation mission (Commonwealth Secretariat)

An election observation group led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki was involved in monitoring electoral conduct in the country, featuring representatives from twelve Commonwealth member states - including the Centre's very own Dennitah Ghati. The work of that group informed INEC's own processes, ensuring that the election was run with maximum transparency and fairness. That group's high level access - to political leaders, Governors, and electoral officials - is testament to the respect that the Commonwealth commands. Also notable was the fact that the UK's International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, met with Obi, Abubakar, and fourth-placed candidate Rabiu Kwankwaso in London prior to the election, a powerful symbol of the convening power that the UK still wields in Africa. But there is much more to be done.

I have mentioned above are just a few ideas on how the Commonwealth can serve as a forum for countries which have succeeded in the face of the challenges that Nigeria now faces, enabling them to dispense advice, expertise, and experience.

Australia, Canada, and the UK no doubt have ideas on how to strengthen democracy within the confines of a Westminster Parliamentary system, while India has expertise to share on electoral logistics and managed urbanisation. There is also space for cooperation and capacity-building on the security front, mimicking the successful Commonwealth-led mission in Sierra Leone and building on the anti-piracy triumph of Operation Ocean Shield off the Horn of Africa.

In turn, other Commonwealth countries could learn much from Nigeria, a country of unrivalled vibrancy, dynamism, and opportunity. Indeed, Nigeria has an impressively diverse and varied economy, with less than 10% of its exports going to West Africa.

Whatever your perspective on all of this, Nigeria is worthy of greater focus, attention, and study. It's a country that could go on to define the 21st century, defying expectations and preconceptions - by improving its understanding and thinking big, the Commonwealth could prove to be the perfect forum for managing the rapid rise of the Giant of Africa.

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