2023 elections: The winners, the losers and the long road ahead

Aare Afe Babalola

Aare Afe Babalola

By Afe Babalola

THE legendary Nigerian poet, Gabriel Okara in his book, The Celebration is Now Ended, said:

“The celebration is now ended but the echoes are all around, whirling like a harmattan whirl-wind throwing dust around and hands cover faces and feet grope.”

These iconic words apply to the 2023 presidential election, the swearing-in of a new president and governors and senators of Nigeria. The presidential, governorship, and legislative elections have now come and gone, with winners declared. However, the dusts of debates and loud echoes of disappointments with the irregularities that trailed the elections will leave even the most patriotic and optimistic Nigerian to wonder when we would ever get it right as a democratic nation.

While several media houses in Nigeria have done their utmost professional best in casting the process and outcomes of the elections in the most positive light possible, a survey of the international reportage of the elections reveal nothing but global shock and bewilderment as to the credibility of the entire process.

For example, the well-regarded international news platform The Economist had the headline, “Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s political kingmaker, wins a flawed election: Allegations of rigging may hamper his efforts to unite a divided country.” The British tabloid The Financial Times had the headline: “Nigeria’s badly flawed election.”Focusing less on the process, but the outcome, the Indian national daily, The Hindu on its part had the headline: “Nigeria elects Bola Tinubu as President but results reveal cracks within.”

The United States-based outlet Foreign Policy gave a rather bleak diagnosis of the process and outcome of the election in its piece: “Nigeria’s Flawed Election Risks a Democratic Backslide.”

Media reportage aside, foreign observer teams that were present in Nigeria also gave damning verdicts on the electoral process. For example, the European Union Election Observation Mission to Nigeria noted low voter participation and widespread technical problems with biometric recognition and transmission of results.

Similarly, the joint observation mission of the International Republican Institute, IRI, and the National Democratic Institute, NDI, noted that: “Failures of logistics, challenges with voter registration and voter card distribution, inadequate communication by INEC, lack of transparency in the publication of election data, and unchecked political violence before and during the elections overshadowed incremental administrative gains achieved in the pre-election period and impeded a substantial number of citizens from participating in voting. Ongoing currency and fuel shortages also imposed excessive burdens on voters and election officials while marginalized groups, especially women, continued to face barriers to seeking and obtaining political office.”

In summary, while a few other foreign observer missions and media outlets focused on the key lessons and gains of the election, the common conclusions in all the surveyed media reporting worldwide is that across the entire country, the elections were characterised by: substantial allegations and evidence of wholesale rigging; extensive vote buying; intimidation and harassment of voters; violence and brigandage against electoral staff; and widespread irregularities of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, in collating, uploading and announcing the results, to such an extent that the entire process was regarded as badly flawed, a sham and the best example of how not to conduct an election.

Expectedly and as it has now become our electoral tradition, the next few months (or years) will now be spent in courts by the gladiators to contest the results of the elections, and the accuracy or otherwise of the foregoing depictions and assertions; so there is no pressing need for me to analyze the results or the main characters involved in this piece.

Regardless of the outcome of the judicial process, what is indeed pressing and concerning at this point is the question whether the recent elections have not indeed signaled a democratic backsliding and substantial reversal of the progress made in recent years in terms of our journey to true nationhood. In other words, are there any positives and gains that can be drawn from the recent elections in terms of our journey and desire to build a stable, prosperous, and peaceful country where all Nigerians can fulfil their God’s given potential? Or are we gradually slipping back to the dark era of autocratic rule that is carefully disguised as democracy?

Just as a medical examiner performs an autopsy to determine a person’s cause of death, the rest of this piece will aim to perform a legal postmortem to determine the winners, losers and the road ahead for Nigeria as the country seeks to rebuild its reputation from the echoes and dusts of the badly lampooned electoral exercise.

2. The Winners

Despite the shortcomings of the elections, it produced some positive and encouraging outcomes which I characterise as the winners.

A. The Nigerian Youth: The first winner is the Nigerian Youth. Frustrated by many years of failed political promises, high unemployment, spiraling poverty levels, insecurity, police brutality and extrajudicial killings, perennial strikes and irregular academic calendar in public universities, including the ill-advised decision of the Federal Government to shut down all universities for the election amongst other challenges, many young voters came out in record numbers to vote for a new Nigeria. For the first time in Nigerian history, 84 percent of registered voters were aged 18 to 34, according to official figures by INEC.

Apart of the strong showing of young voters, a number of youths themselves ran for office with the elections producing the youngest lawmakers in Nigerian history. For example, 27 years old Ibrahim Bello Mohammed, IBM, was declared the winner of the Birnin-Kebbi, Kalgo and Bunza Federal Constituency election, winning a seat in the Federal House of Representatives, while a 26-year-old lady, Rukayat Shittu, also won a seat in the Kwara State House of Assembly. While many observers trace this unprecedented strong showing of young Nigerians in the electoral process to the aftermath of the October 2020 nationwide EndSARS protests which raised a new generation of technology suave youth leaders and activists, this election cycle has indeed changed the political landscape forever as it now shows that young people count as a major force in Nigeria’s electoral process.

B. The Third Force: An essential hallmark of successful democracies across the world is a strong and ideology-driven opposition that will continually appraise and debate the programmes and policies of the ruling party. Yet for many years, the frequent cross carpeting of our political class at a dizzying pace, heightened self-interest, and the lack of a strong culture of political ideologies has meant that many of the political actors that started in the opposition have moved several times depending on where the next political opportunity arises. Thus, for many years, Nigerians yearned to break free from the stronghold of the two-party system that have seen the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress (and its predecessor factions)dominate successive elections at all levels and the associated complex cross carpeting schemes that now make it difficult to differentiate between the two. Even during the campaigns, some of the political aspirants would frequently mistake their own current parties (leading Nigerians to coin the amalgam APCPDP).

Yet, election after election, the prospect of a strong, respectable and credible third force that does not carry the perceived baggage and frailties of the two major parties continued to remain elusive. However, for the first time since 1999, Nigerians finally found in the Labour Party and its candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, a credible Third Force that was able to mobilise widespread support in the North and South resulting in the emergence of a vibrant and effervescent OBIdient Movement. The international media outlet, Al Jazeera, in its headline glowingly reported “Nigeria’s Peter Obi started a movement. Can he become president?” detailing how to many Nigerians, especially the young voters, Obi has emerged as the “rare principled politician” that can break the cycle of corruption, poverty and economic mismanagement that has seen Nigeria become the world’s poverty capital. So, for the first time in Nigerian recent electoral history, the election saw Nigerians flocking to candidates of a third political party outside the two dominant ones. In addition to the strong performance of Mr. Peter Obi at the presidential election, including a victory in Lagos State, the unprecedented milestone of the Labour Party includes one governorship seat, eight senatorial seats and 34 seats in the House of Representatives, making it the third most popular party in the 10th National Assembly.

*This article by Aare Afe Babalola, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and founder, Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti, was first published in Vanguard