Nigeria’s February 2023 general election should have been a victory for democracy.
For the first time since the country’s transition from military to civilian rule in 1999, no former generals appeared on the presidential ballot. Nigeria had already achieved the all-important milestone of a peaceful transfer of power between political parties in 2015, when Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party. And this year, Buhari adhered to the country’s term limits and handed the baton to another member of his party, Bola Tinubu, who would inevitably prevail in a tight three-way race.
But instead of celebrating these turning points as evidence of progress, many Nigerians are seething with discontent and stake out seemingly irreconcilable positions on either side of the deepening political divide. Both losing candidates, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labor Party, have challenged the results in court, and large numbers of their supporters have taken to the streets to protest what they see as a sham election. Meanwhile, Tinubu’s supporters, many of them older, have scolded the protesters for inciting disorder and tarnishing the country’s reputation as a democracy. What one side sees as an irreparably tainted election, the other as evidence of democratic progress.
At first glance, the controversy appears to stem from alleged malpractices surrounding the election – specifically the country’s independent Electoral Commission’s failure to upload voting results to its portal in a timely manner and allegations of ballot theft and suppression, physical intimidation, and other Reports of irregularities that have cast a shadow over the credibility of the vote.
Yet the naked animosity between those who see the election as a colossal swindle organized by a financially compromised Electoral Commission and those who insist that the election was overall free and fair suggests that Something deep is going on. The generational, religious and ethnic divisions that permeate the current election cycle have been exacerbated by it, heightening tensions that threaten to further destabilize the country.
At the heart of the post-election furore is a divide between two different generations. On one side are Nigerians who grew up under military rule in the 1980s and 1990s and still bear the scars of the struggle to oust the generals. Against them are younger, more radical Nigerians who are frustrated by the failure of the country’s democracy to improve their general welfare. For the older generation, Nigeria’s democracy is a matter of pride, the product of much sacrifice, sorrow, tears and blood.
In his view, the current political system is worth defending, warts and all, and the central task for Nigerians is to build on the modest achievements of their democracy. They remember what it is like to vote in a free and fair election, only to have the military nullify the results, as the generals did in 1993. military as excuse to return to power
However, for the younger generation, Nigeria’s democracy has always been high on promises and low on concrete achievements. Youth unemployment is projected to reach 41 percent in 2023, and thousands of young people each year go abroad in search of jobs and schooling. According to a 2022 Africa Polling Institute survey, 69 percent of Nigerians said they would leave the country if given the right opportunity.
Not surprisingly, young Nigerians are eager to see evidence of a change in the country’s economic fortunes and greater public investment in education, health, infrastructure and security. The sudden rise of the populist self-styled outsider Obi, who promised to hold the political elite accountable for its failures, can be partly explained by these desires. Though he ultimately lost, he enthused young voters and turned what was shaping up to be a dull race into a close contest between two seventy-year-old leaders from deeply entrenched parties.
Many Nigerians are seething with discontent.
The rise of the “Obi-Dient”, as Obi loyalists are known, marked the entry of this radical generation into the political process. According to the Electoral Commission, more than half of new voters registered in the lead-up to the election were between the ages of 18 and 34, and only 19 percent of registered voters were between the ages of 50 and 69. In other words, a substantial portion of those who voted in the presidential election—and were subsequently disappointed by its outcome—were not born or were still in diapers in 1993, when older voters turned out to protest the canceled presidential election. took to the streets.
But inter-generational dissonance is much more than Nigeria’s difficult path from military dictatorship to independent democracy. For example, while the country’s older generations have mourned the decline of traditional media, over which they had almost complete control, younger generations have celebrated the rise of social media and its power to bypass establishment gatekeepers.
And it is not just in the realm of the media that older Nigerians are suddenly feeling sidelined; Their influence within civil society has generally declined as younger, more radical figures, including celebrities and entertainers, have eclipsed “traditional” leaders such as trade unionists, social activists and members of the intelligentsia. The darling Obi of this generation will find a political home in the Labor Party, previously a minor player in the country’s politics, one of the election’s many paradoxes.
“a religious war”
Religion is another driver of the current ferment. Its role in the election was underscored by a leaked audio recording on the eve of the election in which Obi can be heard soliciting the support of a prominent Christian leader of Nigeria’s Yoruba ethnic community, which lives in the southwest of the country. is prominent, and describes it. Election as “a religious war”. The OB describes the clip as “tampered”, contradicting an earlier confirmation of its authenticity by a Labor Party spokesman.
But his rhetoric points to simmering Muslim-Christian tensions, exacerbated by Tinubu’s decision, a Yoruba Muslim, to choose former Borno state governor Kashim Shettima, also a Muslim, as his running mate. They went. (In the past, Nigerian presidential candidates typically chose running mates from another faith, and indeed, both Atiku and Obi ran on multifaith tickets.)
Tinubu’s decision may have been motivated by his need to prevent Atiku from the northeast from running the tables in the Muslim-majority northern region. Nonetheless, this fueled resentment among Christians, who saw an anti-Muslim ticket as counterproductive at a time when Christians were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram insurgents and armed bandits.
Group identity is generally dominated by religious affiliation in the Yoruba-dominated states of the southwest, where Tinubu fared well despite the selection of another Muslim as his running mate. But the strength of Christian support for Obi in Lagos state and the north-central states of Nasarawa and Plateau, where he scored a surprise victory, may be linked to radical Islamist threats and Christians’ fear of political impotence.
That Tinubu married outside his faith—his wife is a pastor of Nigeria’s main Pentecostal church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God—made it difficult to frame the election in strictly religious terms, but allayed growing concern among Christians. Stupidity would be unconcerned with the current struggle.
The ethnic movement completes the triad of factors driving Nigeria’s discontent. Of the country’s three main ethnic groups, the Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and Igbo, only the Igbo have never held power in the federal government of Nigeria. In 1967, following anti-Igbo pogroms, the eastern region of Nigeria was officially separated from the rest of the country, declaring the independent Republic of Biafra and sparking a bloody civil war that ended with the federal surrender in 1970. Will happen. Government. Today, many Igbo see their political marginalization as continuing punishment for a war that ended more than half a century ago.
Over the past two decades, the Igbo quest for political representation has been channeled through so-called self-determination groups – first, the Movement for the Realization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and more recently, the more controversial Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, a separatist group whose The aim is to establish an independent state.
Yet these groups have achieved little, as they have received only tacit support from the Igbo elite, who favor strategies aimed at inclusion within the Nigerian political system rather than complete separation.
The emergence of Obi as a credible candidate for the Nigerian presidency temporarily bridged this divide. As an Igbo from the southeast, he tempered some of the fervor of secession as he rose to the polls. At the peak of its popularity, Obi was bolstered by Igbo identitarian and youth transethnic forces in almost equal measure.
His failure to win the election, which seemed to end the prospect of an Igbo presidency in the near future, reignited Igbo ethnic resentment and voices calling for secession.
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These generational, religious and ethnic cleavages will likely play an important role in shaping the Nigerian political process. The younger generation will continue to leverage their mastery of social media to monitor and torment the political elite, which is good for the democratic process.
At the same time, however, the tendency of young Nigerians to moral imperative – characterized by their readiness to portray dissent as treason and resort to name-calling – may ultimately stifle the public sphere and discourage democratic deliberation. Can do
Religious and ethnic divisions are even more worrying. They could easily reopen barely healed wounds, increasing the risk of ethno-religious conflict in areas that have remained mostly stable to this day. Yet such divisions can, more easily than inter-generational divisions, be repaired through political engineering.
Appointing members of marginalized groups to high government offices is a time-tested way of signaling to these communities that they have not been forgotten; So there are long-standing efforts to include them in the political process. The emerging mobilization around ethno-religious cleavages is driven by a deep need for group representation and political fairness. The incoming Tinubu administration will ignore this requirement at its peril.
This opinion piece was first published in the journal Foreign Affairs.