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More To Be Done: Promoting An Inclusive Electoral Environment In Nigeria

The Federal Republic of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, held a general election on February 25, 2023, electing a new president and vice-president.

The elections marked the end of President Muhammadu Buhari’s two terms in office, following his election in 2015. It was set to be an open contest with no incumbent in the race. Candidates also competed down-ballot for 109 Senatorial and 360 House of Representative seats. Despite boasting the biggest electoral register in Africa, with 94 million registered voters, less than 25 million valid ballots were cast across the country’s 36 states and 176,600 polling units.

I was privileged to be an international election observer for this round of Nigerian elections, a part of a joint mission from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, supported by funding from USAID.

At close of polls, the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Ahmed Bola Tinubu of the All-Progressives Congress the winner with 37 percent of the vote, followed by Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party with 29 percent. The Labour Party’s Peter Obi came in third.

Despite delays in opening of polling units and in the distribution of voting materials, conduct across the country’s numerous polling stations was relatively peaceful. Delays necessitated longer voting timelines, outside of the expected 08:30am to 14:30pm window.

It was the first time that INEC was to make use of an electronic voting system, and expectations for the success of the new system differed widely. At polling stations, voters presented voting cards and were identified by a Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS), which uses fingerprints and facial recognition to verify identity. This system aims to reduce the number of fraudulent voters and the number of double votes, both of which have proved problematic in previous elections.

One striking observation was the exclusion of women, young people, and persons with disabilities from the electoral process.

The numerical strength of women in Nigeria simply was not reflected in the results. Women constitute half of the Nigerian population, yet accounted for less than 10 percent of candidates, which further narrowed, with a paltry 4 percent of election winners being women. Just out of the 416 candidates who fought to be governors of their various states, just 25 were women. Although the individual contributions of those women are laudable, the broader picture is still concerning, especially bearing in mind that Nigeria has never produced a female president, vice president or state governor.

In 2022, the National Assembly in Nigeria rejected five constitutional reform bills aimed at promoting women’s rights and political empowerment. One such bill would have created a 35 percent quota for women in leadership roles within political parties, while another would have created 111 additional reserved seats for women. Structures like these have worked well in countries like Kenya and Rwanda, who have been able to bring more women into Parliament.

There have also been calls for greater participation from former First Lady Hajiya Aisha Buhari, who urged Governors to choose women as running mates. In practice, this amounted to little more than a token gesture. Legislated gender quotas remain the true weapon for women seeking representation in Africa’s politics, as is the case in Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and elsewhere.

The rejection of any formal structure for electoral empowerment dealt a big blow to the political participation of women in Nigeria.

Voter apathy among women, electoral violence, and lack of access to campaign finances also posed significant hindrances to women candidates, who typically lack the financial muscle needed to allow them to compete effectively with men.

Persons with disabilities (PWDs) were also conspicuously missing from the electoral process. Very few were able to turn out to vote, though the INEC registered about 35 PWDs as candidates. The passage of the Electoral Act 2022 required INEC to collect PWDs status as a means of enhancing their political participation. It also required INEC to use Form EC40H at polling units to track PWD turnout. These efforts would ensure INEC provided disaggregated data about the participation of PWDs, in order to facilitate provision and use of assistive devices among disabled voters.

Although these steps are positive, assistive materials – such as braille ballot guides and magnifying glasses for the visually impaired - were conspicuously absent at most polling units.

Persons with disabilities are still underrepresented in Nigeria’s electoral process, both as candidates and as voters. Political parties must remain committed to promoting PWDs in both internal leadership structures and the broader electoral process.

Although Youth voters in Nigeria constitute 40 percent of the population according to INEC, the 2023 general election saw just 28 percent of candidates sit within that category, down from 34 percent in 2019. However, Nigeria’s youth made up the bulk of first-time voters, buoyed by slogans like #NotTooYoungToRun – the next generation continues to show real interest in politics. The picture here is mixed, but there are clear signs of improvement and clear cause for optimism.

Nigeria’s 2023 elections were peaceful, despite logistical challenges. Nigerians largely exhibited confidence in the process and expressed their commitment to democratic institutions. However, there is still more work to be done.

In future elections, INEC should consider strengthening their logistical operation to ensure the timely opening of polling units and distribution of materials; it should also work on generating sufficient awareness amongst voters where the location of a polling unit is changed. In order to improve the inclusiveness of the electoral process, the Commission must promote the use of Assistive devices for disabled voters in practice, not just on paper.

There must also be a political response. The National Assembly should prioritize passage of gender quota legislation, to increase the representation of women in elected office, mirroring successful policies in other parts of the continent.

The political landscape in Nigeria carries lessons for the broader Commonwealth, showcasing the sincere enthusiasm for democratic institutions in Africa, while also highlighting the need to improve electoral processes, in terms of both logistics and inclusivity. Hon. Dennitah Ghati is a former member of Kenya's National Assembly (2013-2021) and a member of the Centre's Advisory Board. Dennitah has served as Chairperson of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians With Disabilities Group, is a partner of the Westminster Forum for Democracy, and leads the Dennitah Ghati Disability Foundation.

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