Fixing Nigeria’s economy series: Nigeria is boiling
Nigeria’s February 2023 general election should have been a triumph of democracy.
For the first time since the country transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999, no former army 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 the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party. And this year, Buhari adhered to the country’s term limits and passed the baton to another member of his party, Bola Tinubu, who would prevail in what was essentially a tight three-way race.
But instead of celebrating these critical turning points as evidence of progress, many Nigerians are seething with discontent and staking out seemingly irreconcilable positions on either side of a deepening political divide. Both losing candidates, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour 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, supporters of Tinubu, many of them older, have scolded the protesters for fomenting disorder and tarnishing the country’s reputation as a democracy. What one side sees as an irredeemably tarnished election, the other sees as proof of democratic progress.
At first glance, the dispute appears to stem from perceived misconduct surrounding the election — particularly the failure of the country’s independent electoral commission to upload voting results to its portal in a timely manner and reports of ballot stealing and suppression, physical intimidation, and other irregularities that have cast a shadow over the credibility of the vote.
Yet the naked hostility between those who see the election as a giant swindle orchestrated by a financially compromised electoral commission and those who insist that the election was by and large free and fair suggests that something deeper is at play. Generational, religious, and ethnic cleavages that transcend the current election cycle have been heightened by it, amplifying tensions that threaten to further destabilize the country.
At the heart of the post-election fracas is the divide between two very different generations. On one side are Nigerians who came of age during the era of military rule in the 1980s and 1990s and still bear the scars of the struggle to dislodge the generals. Arrayed against them are younger, more radical Nigerians frustrated by the failure of the country’s democracy to improve their general welfare. For the older generation, Nigeria’s democracy is a point of pride, the product of much sacrifice, sorrow, tears, and blood.
In their view, the current political system is worth defending, warts and all, and the central task for Nigerians is to build on their democracy’s admittedly modest accomplishments. They remember what it is to vote in a free and fair election only to watch the military annul the results, as the generals did in 1993. As a result, they tend to be more conservative and less willing to rock the boat lest they give the military an excuse to return to power.
For the younger generation, however, Nigeria’s democracy has always been long on promises and short on tangible achievements. Youth unemployment is projected to hit 41 percent in 2023, and thousands of young people go abroad in search of jobs and schooling every year. According to a 2022 Africa Polling Institute survey, 69 percent of Nigerians said they would leave the country if the right opportunity arose.
Not surprisingly then, younger Nigerians are eager to see a turnaround in the country’s economic fortunes and evidence of greater public investment in education, health, infrastructure, and security. The sudden rise of Obi, a populist self-styled outsider who promised to hold the political elite accountable for their failures, can partly be explained by these desires. Although he ultimately lost, he energized young voters and transformed what was shaping up to be a humdrum race between two septuagenarian leaders of deeply entrenched parties into a close contest.
Many Nigerians are seething with discontent.
The rise of the “Obi-dient,” as the Obi faithful are known, marked the entrance of this radical generation into the political process. According to the electoral commission, more than half of the new voters registered in the lead-up to the election were between 18 and 34 years old, and just 19 percent of registered voters were between the ages of 50 and 69. In other words, a large proportion of those who voted in the presidential election — and were subsequently frustrated by its outcome—had not been born or were still in diapers in 1993, when older voters took to the streets to protest the annulled presidential election.
But the intergenerational dissonance is about more than Nigeria’s difficult road from military dictatorship to freewheeling democracy. For instance, although the country’s older generations have lamented the decline of traditional media over which they exercised almost total control, the 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 media that older Nigerians are suddenly feeling sidelined; their influence within civil society has declined more generally as younger, more radical figures, including celebrities and entertainers, have eclipsed “traditional” leaders such as trade unionists, social activists, and members of the intelligentsia. That Obi, the darling of this generation, would find a political home in the Labour Party, which was previously a marginal player in the country’s politics, is one of the many paradoxes of the election.
“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 vote in which Obi could be heard soliciting the support of a prominent Christian leader from Nigeria’s Yoruba ethnic community, which predominates in the southwest of the country, and describing the election as “a religious war.” Obi has described the clip as “doctored,” contradicting an earlier confirmation of its authenticity by a Labour Party spokesperson.
But his rhetoric points to nagging Muslim-Christian tensions that were further aggravated by the decision of Tinubu, a Yoruba Muslim, to pick the former Borno State governor Kashim Shettima, also a Muslim, as his running mate. (In the past, Nigerian presidential hopefuls typically selected running mates from another faith, and indeed, both Atiku and Obi ran on multifaith tickets.)
Tinubu’s decision may have been driven by his need to prevent Atiku, who hails from the northeast, from running the table in the Muslim-dominated northern region. Nonetheless, it fuelled resentment among Christians who saw a Muslim-Muslim ticket as gratuitous at a time when Christians have been repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram insurgents and assorted armed bandits.
Group identity generally overrode religious affiliation in the Yoruba-dominated states of the southwest, where Tinubu performed well despite his 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 recorded stunning victories, can likely be linked to nagging fears about radical Islamist threats and the political emasculation of Christians.
That Tinubu married outside his faith —his wife is a pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Nigeria’s leading Pentecostal church — made it harder to frame the election in strictly religious terms, but it would be foolhardy to dismiss the simmering anxiety among Christians as unconnected to the current strife.
Ethnic agitation completes the trio of factors driving Nigeria’s discontent. Of the country’s three main ethnic groups, the Yoruba, the Hausa-Fulani, and the Igbo, only the Igbo have never held power over Nigeria’s federal government. In 1967, after a spate of anti-Igbo pogroms, what was then Nigeria’s Eastern Region officially seceded from the rest of the country, declaring the independent Republic of Biafra and sparking a bloody civil war that would end in 1970 with a surrender to the federal government. Today, many Igbo see their political marginalization as continued punishment for a war that ended more than half a century ago.
For most of the last two decades, the Igbo quest for political representation has been channelled through so-called self-determination groups — first, the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, and more recently, the more controversial Indigenous People of Biafra, a separatist group that aims to establish an independent state.
Yet these groups have achieved little, in part because they received only tacit support from Igbo elites, who have understandably tended to favour strategies aimed at gaining inclusion within the Nigerian political system rather than seceding from it altogether.
Obi’s emergence as a credible candidate for the Nigerian presidency temporarily bridged this divide. As an Igbo from the southeast, he tempered some of the enthusiasm for secession as he rose in the polls. At the peak of his popularity, Obi was bolstered in almost equal measure by Igbo identarian and youthful transethnic forces.
His failure to win the election, which seemed to foreclose the possibility of an Igbo presidency in the foreseeable future, has stoked Igbo ethnic resentment and reinvigorated voices calling for secession.
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These generational, religious, and ethnic cleavages will likely play an increasingly important role in shaping the Nigerian political process. The younger generation will continue to leverage its mastery of social media to surveil and torment the political elite, which on balance is good for the democratic process.
At the same time, however, the tendency of younger Nigerians toward moral essentialism — typified by their readiness to portray disagreement as betrayal and resort to name-calling—could ultimately constrict the public sphere and discourage democratic deliberation.
Religious and ethnic cleavages are even more worrying. They could easily reopen barely healed wounds, raising the spectre of ethno religious strife in regions that to date have remained mostly stable. Yet such divisions, more easily than intergenerational ones, can be repaired through political engineering.
Appointing members of marginalised groups to high government office is a time-tested way of signaling to these communities that they have not been forgotten; so are long-term efforts to include them in the political process. The budding mobilisation around ethno-religious cleavages is being driven by a deeper need for group representation and political fairness. The incoming Tinubu administration will ignore this need at its peril.
• Ebenezer Babatunde Obadare is a Nigerian-American academic. He is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC. Until 2021, he was a professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, United States.
This opinion was first published in ‘Foreign Affairs’ magazine.