Nigeria's Elections Highlight The State of Democracy in Africa
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Located on the west coast of the continent of Africa, Nigeria is home to nearly 215 million people. Speaking more than 500 languages, the diverse population is among the youngest in the world. With a median age of 18, more than 70% of Nigerians are younger than 30, and the country's population is projected to double in the next three decades. Like its people, Nigeria is young and consequential as a democracy.
Officially, Nigeria has been a democracy since achieving independence from British colonial rule in 1960. In practice, Nigerian democracy has been fragile and embattled across the decades, challenged by civil war, periods of military rule, and significant challenges with government corruption, which is why the world has been watching closely the country's recent presidential elections.
Chief Bola Tinubu: I am profoundly humbled as you have elected me to serve as the 16th president of our beloved country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chief Bola Tinubu, he is 70 years old and declared victory with only 37% of the vote.
Joining me now is Ope Adetayo, who is an independent journalist in Nigeria, who's covered the election for Al Jazeera and The Washington Post.
Ope, thanks for joining us.
Ope Adetayo: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Ambassador Mark Green, President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, and former US ambassador to Tanzania.
Ambassador Green, thank you for being here as well.
Ambassador Mark Green: It's good to be with you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ope, help us understand, how is it that a candidate won with only 37% of the vote.
Ope Adetayo: This year's presidential election was a keenly and closely-contested race with three major parties, and that was unprecedented in Nigeria's democracy whereby you have three major parties. It is only logical that the figures will be low, and since they have three major parties to share the votes, but also, the low figure also speaks to the lack of legitimacy by the eventual winner. It lacks popular appeal among the young people who make the major bulk of the voting population for this year's electoral cycle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ope, I might understand then that there is not a process for a runoff to ensure that in a crowded field, a candidate who's ultimately elected makes it to their 50% threshold?
Ope Adetayo: No, no, no. To be declared a winner, all you need to do is to have the majority of votes, the highest number of votes, and to have 25% of the votes cast in 24 of Nigeria's 36 states and FCT. There is no constitutional provision that you have to reach the 50% threshold.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just for US listeners, it is worth remembering that this is also true in the US, that we have had presidents who did not receive 50% of the popular vote, and that it's simply the system of the electoral college that gets us to a 270.
We know that there have been international election observers who have raised critical concerns about these elections. As I pointed out, given that it can't exclusively be a question of a 50% threshold, what are the concerns in the way that this presidential election happened that has international observers worried?
Ope Adetayo: The election itself was a total disgrace, it was in shambles, it was marred by irregularities, violence, long delays, late openings of polls. For the sake of brevity, it was a complete shame. Most notably, was the failure of the Electoral Commission to be faithful to its word and legal provisions that it had. This is the first time that the digital mode of tallying election votes was introduced to Nigerian election, and that raised the stakes for the election, it raised the expectations.
By the end of the day, the Electoral Commission refused to adequately adhere to its own provision by digitally counting votes, as opposed to the long-age manual system that we've been using. This has put a lot of question marks on the vote, and has brought about allegation of rigging, and in some part, violence, and it has colored the entire election as a sham that has been orchestrated by the ruling party to favor its candidate.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ambassador Green, I want to bring you in here because I understand that you were part of a delegation that observed the elections. Can you also talk to us a bit about what it is that has international observers concerned?
Ambassador Mark Green: That's right. I co-led one of the international observer missions. Co-led with former President Malawi, Joyce Banda. A few things. First off, we have to recognize that Nigeria faced a number of challenges going into these elections. There was a bit of a cash crisis, fuel prices were high, and that certainly didn't help the turnout. However, having said that, the polls opened late in a few places, a day late, there were substantial issues in the uploading of results, there was a lack of transparency, and in some ways, that may have been the biggest problem of all.
When there were delays in opening the polls and delays in getting materials to those polls, because the Election Commission was opaque, never held a press conference and said, "Hey, look, here's what's happening," that caused people to be very suspicious. When there's a void, when there's a lack of information, people suspect the worst. That I think is what happened. In so many ways, it was that the Election Commission created high expectations, and failed to achieve those expectations. The expectations were reasonable ones. These were promises made by INEC, the election commission, and identified as concerns by long-term observers last year. It really was a great disappointment.
The other thing I'd say is what you heard from Ope, is what I heard from almost everyone, including those who supported the APC, the eventual winner. Even if you supported the result, you were disappointed by how the elections were conducted. I had a number of people say to me, "Look, we're better than this. Nigerians are better than this." This is a motivated young population that is very literate when it comes to technology. They understood that this didn't need to happen as it did. I think that was the real sense that we took as observers, a profound disappointment in how the elections were conducted.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you use that particular turn of phrase, we're better than this, this notion of slow release of results that people who maybe even liked the outcome were unhappy with the process, Ambassador Green, that does resonate, again, with the US process in recent years, where the expectations around how an election should be conducted seem to not match with how the election itself has been conducted. Is there something more endemic, more structural happening in the context of Nigeria, or is this about a global fragility of democracy that we've talked so much about over the course of the last decade?
Ambassador Mark Green: First off, I hear people talk about the decline of democracy, and I disagree. I think that young people, in particular, want democracy more than ever before. They want a voice in their future. It's democratic governance that is the disappointment, systems that don't fulfill the expectations, systems that aren't responsive to the concerns and needs, and aspirations, particularly of young voters. That is a challenge in a number of places.
Again, Nigeria is a complicated country, a complex country, a marvelous country with a really bright future. On the other hand, it is 500 languages. It is a wide range of demographic groups and challenges in that sense, but there were things that were failed here that didn't need to be. Last year, when the long-term observers, international observers, were asked to review the systems, among other things, the recommendations were that a stress test should be done. Practice tests, a trial run. That wasn't done because the election commission professed confidence. If you're not going to do a trial run and test out the technologies, you are creating expectations in here, but the expectations weren't met, and that has troubled a lot of people. I think the most important thing is what happens next. You pointed out rightly that the winning candidate received just over a third of the votes overall. In fact, all three of the top candidates won the same number of states. The real challenge for Nigerian leaders is to put things back together and to find ways to fulfill the aspirations of young people. That won't be easy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ope, let me come to you on where Ambassador Green has brought us, help us to understand more about the president-elect and how these democratically elected leaders do in fact put this all back together going forward.
Ope Adetayo: The president-elect, Bola Tinubu, is one of the most influential kingmakers in Nigerian political history. He was a two-time governor of Lagos state, which is essentially the economic capital of the country, which means he has been in the political fabric of the country for a long, long time. Even when he left active governance in 2007, he has been instrumental to the ascension of major political players over the year. In 2015, he was the middle architect behind the formation of the All Progressive Congress, which has been a ruling party since 2015. He brought together small parties, regional parties, and made them to what has now become a formidable national party today, and which led to the first defeat of the incumbent president in Nigeria. That speaks to how much of a strategist he is.
Beyond the political realm, he is someone who is struggling to garner legitimacy across the country, especially among the young population of people who are heavily disillusioned about regional politics, tribal politics, and whatever kind of politics that has been playing due to a combination of circumstances and situations in which the country has found itself.
It doesn't even help the president elect, that he's a very shadowy person. His real age is unknown, his education background is contested. Basically, every personal decision involves our incoming president is contested. You mentioned about his age is 71, and I had to nod my head while you were saying that, because there is no concrete proof for that. The combination of these factors, being a shadowy person and being instrumental to middle political players over the years, players which basically got this country to where it is today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ope, take a pause with me. We're going to have more on Nigeria's elections right after this. It's The Takeaway.
You're back with The Takeaway, and we're still in conversation with Ope Adetayo, who's an independent journalist in Nigeria, who's covered the Nigerian elections for Al Jazeera, and the Washington Post, and with Ambassador Mark Green, President, Director and CEO of the Wilson Center, and former US ambassador to Tanzania.
I wanted to dig in on something that both of you have said, Ope and Ambassador Green, where I begin our conversation by reflecting on how young the population of Nigeria is. Both of you, in describing where we are in this moment and trying to understand how this election may or may not be a turning point around democratic governance, really said to us this is about whether or not this new ruling governing regime can address the questions and concerns of young people. I want to be sure we lay some of those out.
Ope, can I begin with you. When you talk about the needs, the concerns, the perhaps skepticism of young people in Nigeria, tell me a bit, in a on the ground concrete way, help me to understand what they are.
Ope Adetayo: To understand the genesis of this major population, major demographic, which shaped the recently concluded election, we need to understand the age [unintelligible 00:14:29] we turned to independence in 1999. That was 22, 24 years ago. Those people who have been born after that time are now of voting age and they can vote. Since 1999, basically, Nigeria has taken a downward turn. These are people who have never experienced stable electricity, stable economy, stable currency, unemployment is skyrocketing. There's currency depreciation. Universities closed down for nine months, eight months in a year at times. The job market is looking bleak and bleak and bleak by the day. This is a demographic which basically has not experienced any good tidings, so to speak, with the Nigerian government. It is a demography that is heavily disillusioned.
In 2020, there was a protest against police brutality, which is popularly called the SARS, the SARS, Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was a notorious police unit which was credited for a wide range of criminalities, including abduction, killings, murder. Young people felt the compelling need to protest, and they went out, and quickly that single protest against police brutality morphed into a protest demanding for better governance as a whole.
The president of the day shot down people, killed protesters. That singular incident became a milestone in the lives of this demographic, which I also belong to. It is where we point to, it is a turning point for our generation because it speaks to the fact that the government would rather kills us that make our life better.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was so helpful, Ope. Ambassador Green, let me come to you on this because I heard you actively move away from the idea of a decline in democracy, instead pointing to, as we heard from Ope there, this desire for self-governance. A yearning to do the work of self-governance, not to replace it with autocratic rule, but perhaps a decline in a belief that the current institutions can provide that.
Ambassador Mark Green: I think that's right. Also, let's remember why this matters so much to us here in the US. It's not just Nigeria, these are challenges facing the entire African continent. This is the first set of elections in the largest democracy in the youngest continent, in the world. All across Africa, there is a generation of young people who I think are idealistic, they are looking for job opportunities, and they're looking for a voice to shape their future, and it's up to institutions to be able to deliver on that.
In the case of Nigeria, it's not only the largest democracy, it's the largest economy. It is the economic engine for the region, and for the continent. As we look at Nigeria, we all have to walk with Nigeria on this journey. We all have to find ways to help strengthen democratic governance, and help institutions pay attention to the needs and concerns of young people. It's good for Nigeria, but it's also important for the continent and the world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask once again this point around the economics here. There's often an asymmetry of information where perhaps ordinary Americans won't hear a lot about Nigeria or about the continent in your daily media listening or watching, but investors and business really understand presumably the critical importance of Nigeria, and again, of the entire continent of Africa, both as a market, as well as a space of innovation. I'm wondering, Ambassador Green, with that asymmetry, how to push through so that our tied shared interests are clear to a broader American public who are not perhaps from or connected across generations to Nigeria.
Ambassador Mark Green: The African continent matters in an extraordinary way. First off, the youngest continent. This is a continent that could be an economic engine. This is a continent that can be a source of ideas and innovations. On the positive side, we're starting to see US officials pay more attention. Janet Yellen was there in January. As we know, Vice President Harris will be spending time there. Secretary Blinken has just come back from Africa. We're hoping that President Biden will visit this year. I think Americans and the American political establishment are finally waking up to the fact that Africa matters.
For those of us who are longtime Africa hands, I began my foreign policy career as a teacher in East Africa. It's long overdue. In order for Africa to play its central role, it has to be responsive to the needs of its rapidly growing young generation entering the workforce. That I think is one of the great challenges. Democracy has to deliver, institutions have to deliver for these young people, and I think all of us need to do what we can to help. You're correct, US investors in businesses are looking at Nigeria as a land of opportunity, but I think it should be much more than that. They should look to Nigeria as a source of ideas and innovations because we need those ideas and innovations, not just for Nigeria, but for the great challenges we're facing around the world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ambassador Mark Green is President, Director, and CEO of the Wilson Center, and former US ambassador to Tanzania. Thank you so much for joining us, Ambassador Green.
Ambassador Mark Green: My pleasure.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ope Adetayo is an independent journalist in Nigeria, has covered the election in Nigeria for Al Jazeera and the Washington Post. Ope, again, thank you so much for being here on The Takeaway.
Ope Adetayo: Thank you for having me.
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