Nigeria’s election on 25 February has been described as pivotal to the progress of democracy in Africa, where military coups and attempts by longstanding rulers to cling to power have raised fears of a “democratic retreat” from advances made since the end of the cold war.
More than a dozen African countries go the polls in the coming 12 months, but experts agree that the presidential and parliamentary vote in the continent’s most populous country is the one that matters the most.
Nigeria “is a bellwether country”, said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and an expert on African politics. “If the election is successful and seen to be democratic, that is going to be a big shot in the arm for democracy more generally across Africa … but the opposite is also true.”
Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, described the election as a cause for optimism and also a test.
“On the one hand, this is a sign of progress,” she said. “Nigeria has now had almost 24 years of uninterrupted democracy and the two-term limit [for presidents] is being followed … But Nigeria has to get it right.”
Foreign Policy, the US global affairs magazine, recently called the election the most important anywhere in the world in 2023, describing it as “a global event – even if the world scarcely knows it”.
The vote comes at a critical time. As well as coups across west Africa, wars have flared and extremism has spread. Economies everywhere on the continent are struggling to overcome the damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation caused in part by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and multiple other challenges. Investment has stalled.
Nigeria is suffering from multiple intersecting crises including economic turmoil, violence, extremism and criminality affecting much of the country, from kidnappings for ransom in the north-west to a 13-year Islamist insurgency in the north-east, separatist violence in the south-east and decades-old ethnic tensions mostly between herders and farmers in the north-central region.
The outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari’s two terms in power are widely viewed as a deep disappointment, and even his wife has apologised to Nigerians for failing to meet expectations.
Last week, Nigeria’s currency slipped further after a “surprise” downgrade of the country’s credit rating by Moody’s, the rating agency. The International Monetary Fund has upgraded its projection for Nigeria’s 2023 economic growth rate, but only to 3.2%.
Observers point out that Nigerians are still looking to an elected government to solve the country’s challenges, and interest in a vibrant campaign has been intense. “It’s a very competitive, close election,” Cheeseman said.
Eighteen candidates are vying to replace Buhari, and analysts say their diversity is evidence of the strength of democracy in Nigeria.
The main contest is between Bola Tinubu, from the ruling All Progressives Congress; Atiku Abubakar, of the main opposition People’s Democratic party; and the Labour party’s Peter Obi, who is leading in some polls.
Tinubu, 70, and Atiku, 76, have significant power bases across Nigeria. Both are seen as traditional politicians who will seek to mobilise voters with massive organisation and spending. Obi is seen as a reformist willing to overhaul Nigeria’s political system.
The 61-year-old former businessman is running an insurgent campaign that relies on social media, word of mouth and the energy of his largely young following. More than 80% of the 10 million new voters who have registered for the coming poll are under 34.
“Obi has emerged as a third force that has shaken the political scene dominated by two established parties … although realistically his chances are slim,” said Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst focusing on west Africa at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company. “The democratic progress made since the end of three decades of military rule [in 1999] shows that despite all the problems the direction of travel is still positive.”
Observers point out that none of the main candidates are former military officers – a first for a Nigerian poll.
One significant factor is new technology that identifies voters through fingerprints and facial recognition. Officials hope this will make the rigging that has historically marred polls in Nigeria much harder.
“This is an election in which all major fault lines are reflected but there is a renewed trust in the electoral process,” Hassan said.
A peaceful transition of power could help roll back a tide of instability in west Africa, where Mali and Burkina Faso have both seen elected governments replaced by military regimes in the last three years.
It could also send a message to other leaders and ruling parties clinging to power on the continent. Teodoro Obiang has been in power in Equatorial Guinea since 1979, Paul Biya has ruled Cameroon since 1982, and Yoweri Museveni has held Uganda in an iron grip since 1986.
Elsewhere, it is parties that once defeated colonialism that are still in charge. The MPLA has ruled for decades in Angola, while Zanu-PF has controlled Zimbabwe since 1981.
“This is an important barometer for Africa [which] could mark the cards of other leaders and say to the dinosaurs ‘your time is up’,” Cheeseman said.
Jason Burke Africa correspondent/TheGuardian