Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, is at the cusp of what analysts predict is going to be a highly competitive election. On February 25th, 2023 Nigerians will go to the polls to elect their new president, vice president, and National Assembly Members; 109 Senators and 360 House of Representatives. Two weeks later, there will be elections for 28 state governors and the legislatures of all 36 states of the federation. Being the seventh general election since the return to democracy in 1999, the polls would consolidate 24 years of uninterrupted democracy in the country. A peaceful transition of power would signify progress for democratization in the country and the continent, especially in view of democratic backsliding in the subcontinent, but the polls would be conducted in a climate bogged down by insecurity, heightened religious sentiments, divisive national politics, and a cost of living crisis.
A peaceful transition of power, much as Nigerians long for it, is not a given. Past experience indicates that an election can be a trigger for violence, with the potential for widespread social unrest. Prior to the 2015 election, there was a popular urban legend, or if you like, rumour, that the American Central Intelligence Agency predicted the disintegration of Nigeria after the 2015 general elections. This rumour ( which many still hold as a truth) had gained so much ground that many felt the successful conduct of the 2015 election cum peaceful transition of power was a defiance of the CIA’s “prediction”.
That Nigeria defied the false prediction attributed to the CIA is not enough reason to induce heedlessness about our fate as a country. The price to pay for liberty is eternal vigilance so therefore we must not rest on our oars. Especially when a more difficult circumstance stares us in the face.
Manufacturing a deliberate elite consensus has become imperative given the tense political climate of the country. At the core of this consensus should be a public and private commitment by Presidential candidates to play according to the rules of the game, and accept the results of credible elections, while grievances arising before, during, and after the elections should be channelled through the appropriate legal process.
Any objections to the electoral outcome by either of the major candidates that are not law-abiding provide the perfect opportunity for chaos to be ignited. A combination of this with the pre-existing insecurity threats has the potential to wreak havoc in the country. An unstable country would give terrorist groups like Boko Haram, ISWAP, and IPOB leeway to perpetuate their atrocities further.
President Jonathan singlehandedly cemented his status as a statesman and saved Nigeria from the precipice by conceding to President Muhammadu Buhari through a phone call congratulating him. His exemplary conduct prevented the country from cascading into a political crisis. Given this positive precedent, It’s in the enlightened self-interest of the Nigerian political elite to emulate and ensure that the competitive election doesn’t cause an implosion post-2023 because no candidate’s ambition should supersede the stability of the country.
The National Peace Committee was born in 2014, out of a need to respond to emerging threats associated with the 2015 election, the committee consists of members who are elder statesmen, and was saddled with the mandate to contribute efforts towards ensuring the peaceful conduct of the 2015 elections, devoid of any breakdown of law and order before, during and after the electioneering process. The committee maintained its mandate since then and has introduced the idea of a peace accord,
” intended to commit candidates to accept the outcome of the votes as long as it is adjudged to be free, fair and credible“. While also “committing all political parties presidential candidates and their spokespersons to peaceful political campaigns and rallies devoid of violent incitement and personal insults”.
Laudable as the initiative of the committee is, the truth remains that peace and stability can hardly be reaped when virulent rhetoric and demagoguery are sown. Essentially because violence is almost always preceded by incendiary rhetoric. Politicians are adept at ethnoreligious messages or framing an election as a competition between regions to galvanize their constituencies through Us Vs Them narratives. This keeps people agitated and on the brink, making them potential footsoldiers for violence. In view of enlightened self-interest, the elite must soft-pedal on any form of rhetoric that tilts Nigeria towards instability due to the outcome of the 2023 election. It is imperative that we all tread with caution.
For the first time since 1979, the dominance of the two major parties is threatened by “mushroom parties” raising the hopes of many that the outcome of the election is going to be unprecedented. Many are unsatisfied with the performance of President Buhari, leading them to see the election as an opportunity to try something “new” in hopes that it would lead to a leadership that’s responsive to the needs of its citizens, revamps the failing economy, tackles insecurity and reform governance. The emergence of the Labour Party and the New Nigeria Peoples Party could potentially cause a paradigm shift that impacts the election remarkably. So much so, that some predict a victory for one of the “newbie” parties, while others anticipate a rerun. Projections are forecasts that could either happen or not, but what is of importance remains how do we manage expectations and dashed hopes if the outcome disappoints not a few?
The Presidential candidates of the two major parties both carry sociological baggage; the candidate of the All Progressives Congress is running a same-faith ticket, a candidacy that though not unprecedented, contravenes the spirit of the federal character principle and the democratic tradition; that the two most senior offices in the land be held by leaders from its two main religions – Christianity and Islam. Likewise, the Peoples Democratic Party’s presidential candidate hails from the north of Nigeria, which is considered by some a violation of the party’s “zoning agreement”, which stipulates that a southerner should be its candidate this time around. A victory by either is bound to be met by some form of opposition.
To calm the storm that could potentially arise from this opposition, an elite consensus is needed to restrain it from going over the edge. Because lurking in the background is the probability of elite vested interests seeking to derail tough decisions by not only exploiting the sociological baggage of either of the two favourites for self-serving reasons but also weaponizing post-election grievances.
Beyond the election is the business of governance, sadly, Nigeria’s socio-economic outlook does look quite bleak. Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world and the economy is doing poorly. Nothing signifies this like the debt service-to-revenue ratio being over 100%. The federal government had to borrow more money than it earns to meet its current debt obligations. In the intended 2023 budget, Nigeria intends to borrow N8 trillion out of its N20.51 trillion national budget to manage its fiscal deficits because Nigeria’s revenue is nosediving. But the Minister of Finance argues that Nigeria’s debt to GDP is still manageable, therefore implying that Nigeria has a revenue, not a debt problem.
Oil is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy so much so that the national budget is pegged on the projected price of a barrel of oil but Nigeria cannot meet its OPEC allocation of 1.8 million barrels per day. It exports an average of 1.1 million barrels per day, losing close to 700,000 barrels a day to industrial-scale oil theft. Nigeria’s financial dilemma is made worse because it is expected to make petrol subsidy payments of about N11 trillion by the end of the year, more than its projected revenue.
It is audible to the deaf and visible to the blind that tough decisions await whoever becomes President in 2023. The next administration has to deliberately pursue a series of initiatives to get Nigeria out of this quagmire. The initiatives would require greater investment in the manufacturing and agricultural sector to create jobs, increase output and exports, diversification of revenue sources to wean Nigeria from the shocks of any fluctuations in the international price of oil, improvement in human development, national reorientation, and a decisive verdict on subsidy.
(Photo by SODIQ ADELAKUN / AFP)