Last week’s win for the ruling party in Nigeria is a familiar result across the continent, but opposition movements won’t stop gearing up for power
Amile or so from the crashing breakers of the Atlantic, in one of the most affluent parts of Lagos, hushed visitors admire the paintings and prints on the walls of the Nike Art Gallery, one of the biggest such private institutions in Africa.
Among the gallery’s visitors last week was Ehi, a businesswoman in her 40s who lives nearby and came with her three children. Hours before, officials had announced the results of Nigeria’s presidential election, held four days earlier. These had left Ehi bitterly disappointed. Her favoured candidate – Peter Obi, a 61-year-old businessman who had promised reform and a radical change of direction for Nigeria – had been soundly beaten by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a veteran “political godfather” who was the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
“[Obi] articulated what he wanted to do. He had a real programme. Tinubu had no answers. He just left me with more questions,” Ehi said.
A few miles across the city, in the gritty, overcrowded streets of Lagos Island, there were different scenes. Voters here had turned out four days earlier to vote en masse for Tinubu, and there was much satisfaction. “Now things will get better. Who knows anything about this Obi man? But we know [Tinubu] … He will look after us”, said Adeleke Adejoke Bilikis, a jobless 43-year-old.
The residents of Lagos are not alone in seeing the election in Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy as a potential inflection point. Nigeria faces economic turmoil, widespread violence and systemic corruption. The eight-year rule of outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari was characterised by drift and disappointment. Before the election, commentators spoke of a chance to “change the trajectory”. That opportunity seems to have been missed.
Labour party presidential candidate Peter Obi talks to the media at outside a polling station in Amatutu. Photograph: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty Images
The poll was very different from the six others held since military rule ended in Nigeria in 1999. One major difference was a new level of competition. Obi campaigned with the tiny Labour party, taking on both Tinubu, 70, and Atiku Abubakar, 76, a second establishment politician who represented the People’s Democracy Party (PDP). For a moment it looked like the decades-old dominance of the APC and the PDP might end.
“What he has done is pretty mind-boggling. He has challenged the duopoly of two behemoths, two very rich and powerful parties,” said Prof Abiodun Adeniyi, a political analyst at Baze University, Abuja.
This was not the only novelty. Where the established parties relied on patronage networks, appeals to ethnic or religious solidarity and a massive party machine to mobilise support, Labour reached out across Nigeria’s faultlines with a slick social media campaign. Tinubu’s campaign slogan was: “It’s my turn”, which some in Lagos translated less literally but possibly more accurately as “it’s payback time.” Obi, who made a fortune with supermarkets, promised efficient governance and innovation, not pork-barrel politics. His frugal lifestyle and modest approach was another dramatic contrast with Tinubu, who is in no way shy about his massive wealth.
Much of Obi’s support came from young people and urban voters. Many are affluent and educated, but not all, as voting returns from polling stations in barracks in Abuja showed. He gained 6m votes [around 25%], and won in the capital and in Lagos, long the fiefdom of Tinubu. “Obi is in contrast to our dominant politics. Even if he didn’t win now, he has the potential to be president. His message is resonating with the people,” said Adeniyi.
Such analyses will encourage others across the continent. Democracy has been in retreat in many regions, with repressive regimes, parties that have clung to power for 40 years or more, and many “dinosaur” leaders able to see off successive challenges.
In many places, opposition candidates have tried to build a popular movement similar to that launched by Obi in Nigeria. They, too, have sought to appeal to Africa’s millions of young voters, whether successful globally networked urbanites or isolated villagers. All, too, have called for an end to politics based on handouts, opaque deals, cronyism, corruption and intimidation.
But the efforts of Bobi Wine in Uganda, Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe, Adalberto Costa Júnior in Angola and Martin Fayulu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all met defeat by incumbents backed by security services, police and powerful electoral machines.
Last month, Chamisa called on the international community to have “eyes on” the struggling southern African country, despite other crises around the world, and to “offer solidarity” to those fighting for change there. “Here, too, people are being killed for their opinions. Zimbabweans want to see change and want to see a transformation,” Chamisa said.
One lesson from the successive defeats of such figures, despite their charisma and integrity, is that eye-catching social media campaigns may raise false hopes.
Though Obi dominated “Twitter and other social media spaces driven by his enthusiastic young grassroots supporters … this online movement did not translate [into] enough votes”, said Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou of ODI, a London-based global affairs thinktank.
This may partly explain why the Nigerian presidential election recorded the lowest voter turnout since 1999, with only 27% of eligible citizens casting ballots. Fuel and currency shortages were also factors. The exact breakdown of who voted is unclear – there are suggestions that fewer rural people cast their ballots than those in urban areas – but analysts predicted a low turnout could lead to a Tinubu win.
Peter Obi has everything going for him … and the system needs someone with a disruptive agenda
Prof Abiodun Adeniyi, political analyst
Another lesson is that deep-rooted identities that have underpinned voting patterns across Africa for decades are enduring. “Tinubu, Abubakar and Obi all secured victories in their strongholds as expected,” said Mucahid Durmaz, senior West Africa analyst at risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft. “The political map highlights the fractious nature of Nigerian politics and the continued importance of regional identities, with ethnic and religious undertones. Tinubu will have to unify a country that has retreated into regional and religious blocs, as well as gain the trust of disfranchised urban youths and Christian Igbos in the south-east.”
In Abuja, Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, a research analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development, agreed. “Identity politics played a big role … The result showed clearly how divided Nigeria is,” he said.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to reformist politicians and movements across Africa is the brutal efficacy of security services loyal to powerful established elites, and the intimidation and fear they inspire. The Nigerian elections saw selective voter suppression and violence which undoubtedly impacted the result, though by how much is unclear. The anxiety is very real. Ehi refused to give her full name for fear of post-election violence or other threats. “Why take risks?” she asked.
Like many, she blamed rigging for the defeat. Opposition parties have challenged the result in Nigeria, pointing to the chaotic count and long delays in posting results.
But if there is no immediate evidence of widespread manipulation during or after the Nigerian vote, there is plenty in other elections across the continent. Few believe the ruling Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe will allow a free and fair poll there later this year, and there is little doubt that Fayulu was the true winner of the DRC’s election in 2018.
This may mean that the rapid urbanisation, youth, increasing education and growing connectivity of much of Africa has yet to reach the critical level that would allow reformist opposition movements to overcome resistance to radical change, but this may not always be the case.
Despite all the setbacks and challenges, Obi may not be too displeased by the outcome of Nigeria’s 2023 elections. The new political map of the country shows the south-east and centre, as well as Lagos, painted in the bright red of the Labour party. Its leader now has the time to gather the resources and create the organisation or alliances he will need for a new and possibly successful bid for the presidency in 2027.
“Even if Obi didn’t win he now has the potential to be president. His message is resonating with the Nigerian people. He is offering real change. He has passion and intellect. He has everything going for him …and the system needs someone with a disruptive agenda,” said Adeniyi.
This will please Ehi, and hundreds of millions of others in Nigeria and across Africa. “That is my greatest joy. Each individual is now interested in the good of their country,” she said. “Change will come … It may not be how we planned it, or expected it, but change will come.”
(The Guardian, London)