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New Atlanticist March 1, 2023

Experts react: As the ruling party’s Tinubu wins a contested election, what’s next for Nigeria?

By Atlantic Council experts

From kingmaker to king. Bola Tinubu, the ruling All Progressives Congress party presidential candidate and longtime political powerbroker, was declared the winner of Nigeria’s presidential election on Wednesday with about 37 percent of the vote. But Tinubu’s main challengers, outsider and former governor Peter Obi and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, said they would challenge the results in court. What do the results mean for Africa’s most populous country and its role in the region? What went wrong with the election administration? What can Tinubu do to win over his critics? Atlantic Council experts, one of whom served on the ground as an election monitor, weigh in below.

Constance Berry Newman: The view from the ground: Where election administration fell short

Aubrey Hruby: To win over his younger skeptics, Tinubu needs economic results—and fast

Rama Yade: Tinubu will play a pivotal role in the continent—and the world

The view from the ground: Where election administration fell short

On the ground, where I served in recent days as an election observer, it is about the Nigerian people—the voters, non-voters, youth, Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other government officials, political parties, media, and civil society. Around ninety-three million Nigerians were registered to vote, but only 26 percent of those registered turned out to vote. Those who voted were engaged, standing in lines sometimes for hours, staying for the final counts, saluting each announced winner in their polling site. 

One puzzle not yet solved is: Why did so many more people decide not to vote than in previous elections? It’s probably all the same reasons Nigerians did not vote in the past—a belief that nothing will change anyway, a fear of violence and other intimidation factors, and a lack of an understanding of the voting procedures. However, the youth are amazing. We saw them at the polling sites, though exact turnout numbers are yet to be verified, and the National Youth Service Corps ran the election at the polling site level. My conversations with many of the youth led to an observation that Nigeria has reason to hope for a better future because many of the youth are really engaged and understand what is right and wrong for their country. There are mixed reviews regarding the role of the media, because there are barriers to media having the freedom to do its job, and parts of the media allow for and even provide misinformation and hate speech. 

With regard to the civil-society participants, many are sophisticated in data collection and analysis, questioning government officials with facts, using media and social media in effective ways. However, neither they nor the government nor the political parties has been effective in getting the citizens to vote in any meaningful numbers. Also, the political parties have a long way to go in terms of improving inclusion for youth, women, persons with disabilities, and internally displaced persons in the political process.

With regard to the government’s role in the administration of the election, one can draw both positive and negative conclusions. On the positive side: 

  1. The Electoral Act of 2022 took steps to improve electoral integrity. However, conclusions are yet to be determined about the implementation of those steps across the board. 
  2. Preparations for the election started earlier than for previous elections, which should have resulted in improved Election Day activities at the polls and final reporting of the results. 
  3. Generally speaking, the technology worked, but it would have worked better had INEC pilot tested the technology on a national level prior to the February election. INEC piloted the key new systems in three off-cycle elections but never conducted a nationwide test.  
  4. The government secured signatures from the eighteen political parties to the 2023 Peace Accord. Therefore, each presidential candidate and the candidate’s party committed to accepting the outcome of the elections or seek legitimate means of remedy in the event of divergent viewpoints.

For the various governmental entities charged with playing a role in the election, currency and fuel shortages were a negative. Also, while some may argue that it is unfair to assign blame, the fact is that the government did not stop election violence such as the assassination of the Labour Party senatorial candidate for Enugu East.

Specially for INEC, there were three main negatives: 

  1. A lack of transparency, so voters and the general public did not understand why election data was published late, for example. 
  2. Very late openings of polling sites because of late transportation of materials, missing materials, and late arrival of staff. This led to frustrated, often angry, voters, a limited number of whom left and a small number of whom engaged in violent activities. 
  3. A seemingly ineffective and late tabulation announcement process that raised concerns about the announced results.

Constance Berry Newman is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She is a member of the joint International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute Observer Mission to Nigeria’s 2023 presidential and legislative elections.

To win over his younger skeptics, Tinubu needs economic results—and fast

After one of the closest elections in recent Nigerian history, Tinubu has called for an “era of renewed hope,” asking for peace, patience, and solidarity. He acknowledged the role that the youth have played in the elections and the need to address young people’s “pains, your yearnings for good governance, a functional economy, and a safe nation.” The fact that the “godfather of Lagos” lost his home city to Peter Obi demonstrates the power of the message Nigerian youth sent in this election.  

In order to address the concerns of the youth, the septuagenarian Tinubu will need to turn his immediate attention to the economy. Food inflation, at a seventeen-year high, is up 28 percent year on year from 2021 to 2022, official youth unemployment hit 42.5 percent (according to the national bureau of statistics) and oil production has fallen to a forty-year low. Power is still expensive—Nigeria is home to sixty million diesel generators and fuel products are still imported—and the World Bank estimates that over 40 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. Borrowing on international markets to invest in infrastructure is not really an option for the new Tinubu administration, as Nigerian debt has nearly doubled since 2015 and is now over one hundred billion dollars.  

In the campaign, Tinubu committed to removing the fuel subsidies that cost Nigeria more than ten billion dollars in 2022, but this is not the first time a president tried to take on this beast. Then President Goodluck Jonathan’s efforts to remove the fuel subsidies ended after nationwide protests in 2012. This time around also promises to be politically difficult given the financial hardships faced by Nigerians.

Tinubu will also be asking a lot of Nigerians who are dependent on day-to-day imports should he push for the free float of the naira. The central bank currently restricts access to foreign exchange and rations dollars to prop up the naira, which is now valued at half of what it was when outgoing President Muhammad Buhari was first elected in 2015, resulting in a large spread between the official and street exchange rates. By the time Tinubu officially takes office at the end of May, hopefully the current government will have rationalized the demonetization plan that has caused cash shortages and long lines at ATMs.  

Despite all of these economic challenges, the Nigerian spirit has remained resilient. The informal economy (which, based on my experience doing business in the country for twenty years, is two-to-three times the size of the official economy) continues to absorb newcomers to the labor market, and there is a bright spot within Nigerian tech and entrepreneurship. The country is home to Africa’s largest venture capital and tech hub, and Nigerian companies such as Sabi, SeamlessHr, Moniepoint, and Moove are expanding to other economies in the region. 

But Tinubu will have an uphill battle in renewing young people’s faith in Nigeria. Young Nigerians are leaving the country in record numbers—those going to the United Kingdom to work has quadrupled since 2019—and the Nigerian Medical Association says that at least fifty doctors are leaving every week to work abroad. Tinubu will have to show quick results on the economic front to stem the tide. 

Aubrey Hruby is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, a co-founder of Tofino Capital, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Tinubu will play a pivotal role in the continent—and the world

What we can say today is that even if the election was highly disputed, with Bola Tinubu, logic prevailed. Tinubu’s victory is not a surprise. He was running on behalf of the ruling All Progressives Congress. He is Muslim from the Yoruba-speaking southwest, and even if he lost there, he has strong support in Lagos. If the result is confirmed, the largest African democracy will have passed one of its most important tests since military rule ended in 1999. And it is not over: Beyond the presidential election, Nigerians are also electing their 469 representatives in the Senate and the House of Representatives. Democracy is a tough path.

This election is special, too, because Nigeria is transitioning to a new environment marked by an economic turning point and a changing continental and international context. The expectations have never been so high. Tinubu will lead a country that is expected to become the world’s third most populous by 2050. At the African level, Nigeria is a major actor whose economy represents 70 percent of the West African gross domestic product. The future of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the new Eco currency (which has been postponed to 2025), and the African Continental Free Trade Area (which needs to be accelerated) are in Nigeria’s hands. Even as it faces major shifts, it will tremendously impact the rest of the continent. At the global level, the African continent will negotiate its role in international bodies from the Bretton Woods system to the Group of Twenty (G20) nations, and Nigeria will play an important role in this unprecedented dialogue.

Rama Yade is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Further reading

Related Experts: Constance Berry Newman, Aubrey Hruby, and Rama Yade

Image: Bola Ahmed Tinubu reacts after he was declared winner in Nigeria's presidential election at the Party's campaign headquarters, in Abuja, Nigeria March 1, 2023. REUTERS/Marvellous Durowaiye NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.