Voter apathy a key factor in disputed elections outcome

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari receives Nigeria's newly declared winner of 2023 presidential election, Bola Tinubu and Vice President-Elect Senator Kashim Shettima in Daura, Nigeria. Picture: Nigeria's Presidency/Handout via Reuters

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari receives Nigeria's newly declared winner of 2023 presidential election, Bola Tinubu and Vice President-Elect Senator Kashim Shettima in Daura, Nigeria. Picture: Nigeria's Presidency/Handout via Reuters

Published Mar 5, 2023


Dr Sizo Nkala

Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, Nigeria, held its presidential elections on February 25. The four leading candidates in the elections were Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP). Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), a body which is tasked with running and managing the elections, announced the results on March 1.

Bola Tinubu of the APC emerged the winner, having captured 8.79 million votes (about 37% of the total votes cast), Abubakar was second with 6.98 million votes (29%), and Peter Obi was trailing closely in third with just over 6.1 million votes (25%). Rabiu Kwankwaso came a distant fourth, having managed only 1.49 million votes.

Nigeria’s simple majority electoral system enabled Tinubu to be pronounced the winner even though he amassed only 37% of the votes cast. The outcome means that the ruling APC will remain in power, with the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari having already congratulated Tinubu and pledged to work with his team to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

However, the opposition parties have rejected the outcome of the elections, arguing that the elections were marred by rigging and violence. The chairperson of the Labour Party called for a rerun because his party had lost confidence in the INEC’s capacity and ability to run the elections. International elections observers, such as the European Union (EU), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), also claimed that the elections were not transparent and fell far short of the expectations of the Nigerian citizens.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo also criticised the conduct of the elections, arguing that it failed the integrity test in some areas, which is sufficient grounds for the nullification of the elections. However, the government rubbished Obasanjo’s claims and accused him of calling for a coup against democracy by making claims without evidence. It remains to be seen whether the opposition parties will approach the courts to seek the cancellation of the elections.

On the other hand, the declared winner, Tinubu, called for reconciliation and unity with his fellow contestants and invited them to help him build the country in his post-election statement. A former governor of Nigeria’s economic heartland, the city of Lagos, and a former senator, Tinubu has his work cut out for him. Nigeria is reeling under deadly terrorist attacks that are becoming more and more frequent, corruption is still widespread, and the economy is under performing.

In January, just a month before the elections, Nigeria’s inflation rate reached 21.82%. This was the highest inflation rate since 2005. As such, Tinubu’s administration will have to come up with sound macro-economic policies and security policies to tackle the economic and security crises bedevilling the country.

That said, perhaps the biggest cause for concern in the Nigerian elections, from a democracy point of view, was the high level of voter apathy. It is shocking that in Africa’s biggest democracy, only 24% of those who registered to vote actually cast their vote. Out of the over 93 million people registered to vote, only 23 million bothered to go and vote in the just-ended elections. The turnout is significantly lower than in the 2019 presidential elections, which recorded a turnout of 35%. The low turnout was unexpected, considering that Peter Obi’s candidacy seemed to have excited the young people in Nigeria, who made up over half of the 93 million registered voters. One would have expected the young people to come out in numbers and vote for their preferred candidate.

The democratic crisis in Nigeria comes into sharp relief when one considers that Mr Tinubu, the 70-year-old president-elect, will assume office having secured the support of only 8% of the registered voters. Some have blamed the government’s failure to root out terrorist attacks as the reason many people did not go out to vote.

Nigeria has suffered numerous terrorist attacks in the recent past, which may have encouraged people to avoid crowded polling stations. Democracy is about active participation in the political processes because, without it, democracy dies. It is now up to the Nigerian people to conduct a sober diagnosis of the crisis and devise strategies for reversing the decline in democracy.

Building credible and trustworthy institutions, making election infrastructure easily accessible to the broader population, public education on the importance of voting and, most critically, eliminating threats to public security may be some of the solutions to the low voter turnout.

Another major takeaway from the latest electoral cycle is how it has disrupted Nigeria’s two-party system, which was dominated by the PDP and the APC. The Labour Party has become the third major party with a realistic chance of winning if it is able to maintain its vote share in the future elections. This will give Nigerian voters a more choice by diversifying the political landscape. As a regional powerhouse, Nigeria’s elections should have set the standard for other countries in Africa. Instead, the elections were a dismal showing which will undermine the development of democracy beyond Nigeria’s borders.

*Dr Sizo Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies