Jason Burke in Lagos
Sat, 25 February 2023 at 2:21 pm GMT
Nigerians are voting to decide a tight and unpredictable contest for the presidency and parliament of Africa’s most populous nation and its biggest economy.
The polls appeared to be largely peaceful, though the opening of more than half of all polling stations was delayed by at least an hour with many others suffering problems with new voting technology, civil society groups said.
In the commercial capital, Lagos, large numbers of voters waited cheerfully for much of the morning for election officials to arrive, often two or even three hours late.
“I am very excited. I have been looking forward to exercising my civil rights. I am looking for a better Nigeria,” said Victoria Adeyemo, a 65-year-old lawyer, as she sat waiting for a voting station in upmarket area of Ikoyi to open.
In the poor and crowded neighbourhood of Mushin, electoral officials and party agents said polls had opened on time to welcome a rush of voters.
Amaka Gloria, 27, said it was a “big relief” that “everyone had been able to vote”.
Analysts have spoken of a “bellwether” election that could be crucial turning point for Nigeria after several years of worsening insecurity and acute economic troubles. Many see a credible poll and progress in tackling the country’s multiple problems as key to stability across a swath of Africa.
About 300,000 police officers have been deployed to protect 176,000 polling stations and a ban on all movement by road, water or air imposed during the poll. Land borders have also been closed.
Eighteen candidates are vying to replace the outgoing two-term president, Muhammadu Buhari, but the main contest is between 70-year-old Bola Tinubu, from the ruling All Progressives Congress; Atiku Abubakar, of the main opposition People’s Democratic party; and the Labour party’s Peter Obi, who is leading in some polls.
Tinubu and Abubakar, 76, have significant power bases across Nigeria. Both are seen as traditional politicians who have sought to mobilise voters with massive organisation and spending.
“Tinubu is my father, Tinubu is my country. He has done good things for us,” said Adeleke Adejoke Bililis, an unemployed 43-year-old, after voting at Eroko Street polling station on Lagos Island.
“He is Yoruba like me so of course I vote for him,” she said, naming the ethnic community that she and the candidate belong to.
Obi is seen as a reformist willing to overhaul Nigeria’s political system who has reached across the country’s many ethnic and religious fault lines. The 61-year-old former businessman, ran an insurgent campaign that relies on social media, word of mouth and the energy of his largely young following. More than 80% of the 10 million new voters who registered for the coming poll are under 34.
But though recent surveys suggested Obi has between a 10% and 40% lead over his rivals, many experts warned this could fast disappear if turnout is low, meaning a probable victory for the ruling party’s candidate.
Nkechi Richards, a 35-year-old fashion designer in Lagos, said that though some of her friends shared her enthusiasm for Obi, many others “wanted to stick to the familiar and fear the new”.
According to charts drawn up by Yiaga, a coalition of civil society groups which has deployed monitors, the delays to opening of polling stations were most severe in the south-east, where Obi is most popular.
Though the contest looks close, Nigerian electoral law makes a runoff unlikely, as the winning candidate needs only a simple majority, provided they get 25% of the vote in at least two-thirds of the 36 states.
Nigeria is suffering from multiple intersecting crises including economic turmoil, extremism and criminality affecting much of the country. In recent weeks, an effort to replace almost all Nigeria’s bank notes – in part to reduce the widespread practice of vote buying – has caused massive economic disruption and much popular anger.
More than 90 million Nigerians registered to vote, but only 87 million picked up the necessary documents to cast their ballots.
However, analysts point out that this is the seventh poll held since the end of military rule in 1999 and that some Nigerian democratic institutions are growing stronger. That none of the main candidates are former military officers – a first for a Nigerian poll – is also seen as an achievement.
One significant factor is the new voting technology that identifies voters through fingerprints and facial recognition. Officials hope this will make the rigging that has historically marred polls in Nigeria much harder.
A peaceful transition of power could help roll back a tide of instability in west Africa, where Mali and Burkina Faso have both seen elected governments replaced by military regimes in the past three years.
It could also send a message to other leaders and ruling parties clinging to power on the continent.