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Nigeria: Trading Votes or Deeper Democracy

Guest: Ayisha Osori, director of the Executive Vice President’s Office at the Open Society Foundations.

The Nigerian election was filled with youthful energy and hopes for change. But it was also rife with corruption, vote trading, and extremist threats. How should we make sense of Nigeria’s politics?

Nigeria’s presidential vote was one of the most closely watched and significant elections of the year. One of the world’s top oil producers and a leading African economy, Nigeria’s 220 million people have suffered political and economic upheaval since independence from the UK in 1960. In the lead up to this election, young people were galvanized and believed change was possible. But the election was, instead, defined by a small margin, low turnout and rampant corruption. There were widespread accounts of voter irregularities, sporadic violence at polling stations, disorderly delays, and a myriad of logistical issues. Why didn’t the seeming enthusiasm for change actually bring change? Our guest Ayisha Osori, a Nigerian lawyer, international development consultant, and politician, joins us to discuss the background and nuances of this election cycle in Africa’s largest democracy.

We started by trying to understand more about the political and economic backdrop to this election. Nigeria has been in an economic crisis for years. How did this all happen? Osori said, “It’s a mix of different things. Of course, there’s the pandemic, but there are also self-inflicted wounds. Mainly over the last eight years, we’ve had a president with a status-outdated mentality of managing an economy. And so, he’s also run one of the most decentralized executive teams ever, not in a good sense, but in the sense that you have different agencies, ministries not speaking to each other, not collaborating.”

The currency crisis is one example that has been plastered all over international newspapers. Osori said, “In October 2022, the Central Bank of Nigeria introduced what they said was going to be a naira [the Nigerian currency] redesign policy, but people are calling it a naira confiscation policy. They took three of the largest notes and basically just changed the colors. Then they mocked up about 3 trillion nairas but only printed a couple of billion. So not even meeting half the currency needs of the citizens. And this was done on the eve of the presidential and gubernatorial elections.”

Why on earth would they do that? Osori explained, “Many saw the timing of this policy as designed to thwart politicians who were known to have stockpiled naira, the old naira notes in preparation for being able to compromise the elections, you know, pay off voters and things like that. The Supreme Court stepped in and held that the naira redesign policy was illegal, even though, what the Central Bank claimed that it was trying to do was move towards a cashless society. But we don’t have the infrastructure for that.”

We asked about the structural political issues that seem to keep holding Nigeria back. Osori said, “Three things I would say have dominated Nigeria’s political economy since independence. One is the sense of political equity and political succession that’s typically dictated by our very complex ethnic and religious mosaic, and the need to distribute power and benefits fairly. The second is national stability, which the military men like to call non-negotiable unity. We’ve suffered multiple insurgencies from Nigeria’s Delta [region], where Nigeria’s oil wealth is centered. Groups are looking for resource control, including Boko Haram’s war for over 10 years in the Northeast where they’re trying to create an Islamic state. Even more recently, we have the indigenous people of Biafra known as IPOB, who are also waging a secessionist war in the southeast where the bitter civil war was fought in the late sixties and early seventies. And then third is the political ethics and the containment of corruption.”

Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked our guest to further elaborate on the country’s religious, tribal, and linguistic fault lines. How does this play into corruption? Osori laid out a map of the country and its divisions. She said, “We have at least 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria and roughly the main religions are Islam, Christianity, and then a traditionalist [component]. Corruption [is] enabled by the sense that it’s better to just have people who are representative as opposed to competent people. One of the greatest problems that we have is government ineffectiveness, where you have people who have no business in government there to represent their region or their religion to satisfy this political representation that’s required by the Constitution.”

Osori continued to lay out other challenges. “The second thing that’s a real challenge is that there’s no rule of law. There’s no sense of access to justice. People find that they have to resort to self-help to get any justice, which is where you find the tensions from Boko Haram, [and] from the Niger Delta. And even now from IBOP, there’s all just the sense that without being violent, without contesting with arms, you can’t get any justice in Nigeria. Then finally, there’s just the governance structure. People point out that although we say we’re a federation or operating a federal system, we’re actually a very tight unitary system where the president has lots of powers. The key things for me are those three things – incompetence, no rule of law and the governance structure that’s faulty.”

Now, armed with the economic and political context, we can finally get around to this election. Who were the frontrunners? Osori said, “Although we have 18 parties, we had three major front runners. Atiku Abubakar, who’s from the north. Peter Obi, who’s from the east. And Bola Tinubu, who’s from the southwest. They roughly represented the three main pillars of Nigeria’s ethnicity. So, although we have 250, the Ibgo (Peter Obi), the Hausa-Fulani (Atiku Abubakar) and the Yoruba (represented by Tinubu) largely make up the main ethnic groups in Nigeria. We’ve had really divisive campaigns around ethnicity.”

The election was condemned by many as corrupt and unfair. The election results are being contested in court. What happened there? Osori said, “We spent a lot of money, millions and millions, on what we call the BVAS, which is short for the Bimodal Voter Application System that was supposed to be technology that would make the way we vote, accreditation of voters, transfer the results. But when it came to the presidential results, suddenly BVAS wasn’t working. There was a block of time on Saturday, February 25th when nobody knew what was going on, and the results were not being uploaded. Many people think that was a period when there was some sort of manipulation. And it’s, according to INEC, they didn’t upload because they were getting attacks from hackers. Many people don’t believe that story, especially when INEC itself came out weeks before the election to say that they had spent 25 million dollars only on anti-hacking software.”

In her youth and social justice segment on Altamar, Téa Ivanovic turned the conversation to the youth. Nigeria has one of the largest youth populations in the world. They seem to be becoming a constituency to be reckoned with. Osori said, “We all put a lot of faith and hope in the youth turnout during the elections. I have to say though, that the voter turnout was worse than it was in 2019. We’ve been steadily dropping, and the voter turnout on February 25th was only 27%, making many people question our numbers. Why, despite the fact that the number of people registered keeps going up, are we are finding fewer and fewer people coming out to vote? It’s tied to people just not trusting the system and trusting the way the election management body works.”

The candidate which seemed to gather much of the youth vote was Peter Obi.  Obi made a splash across international newspapers with his followers the “Obi-dients.” But youth turnout was low, and he lost. Where does Obi go from here? Osori said, “It’s really hard to tell. [The Obi-dients movement [is] beyond a party. That’s the truth. Many people voted differently. Many people who are actually historically one party or the other all switched to Obi as an individual. So, I think his star power will probably go with him wherever he goes.”

Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked about a phenomenon Osori has written about extensively – the “vote with your stomach” reality. Osori said, “People are saying, you know what, we don’t want road infrastructure. We don’t want school infrastructure. What we need is food in our bellies. We want cash gifts, or sometimes there are little food gifts that speak to the stomach reality. But the truth is, I tend to think that the focus on stomach infrastructure and vote trading is a distraction from the fact that there are many fundamental, more insidious problems with election integrity in Nigeria than vote trading.”

We wrapped up – as we often do – with Osori’s predictions for the future. Will this finally be the crisis that leads to reform? Osori said, it’s too hard to tell, but I will say that there’s no crisis in Nigeria that we cannot waste. I would say that wherever we end up, it will be driven by the younger generation. They will still continue to be the determining factor on where the country goes and what kind of reforms we get if they push hard enough for those reforms.” What is needed for real change in Nigeria? Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here


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Episode 148