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Nigerian Election 2023: What Did We Learn From It, By Matthew Ma

Nigerian Election 2023: What Did We Learn From It   By Matthew Ma
March 29, 2023


“The 2023 general elections in Nigeria were crucial as they offered the opportunity to strengthen the country’s democracy and address various prevalent issues that have been worsening for years. But with Nigeria as a nation of many paradoxes, most people make decisions based on primordial sentiments of their connections to candidates – specifically through ethnic and tribal relationships. For years, the Nigerian state based its ideology on the easel of religion, ethnicity, and region. We must restructure these notions away from our minds because this trip will not take us anywhere.”


Nigeria, the largest democracy in Africa, conducted its Presidential and National Assembly elections on February 25, 2023, and Governor and State Assembly elections on March 18, 2023. However, the outcome of the elections became highly controversial, resulting in outrage among the opposition and the general population. Eighteen political parties presented candidates for the presidential elections. Of the 18, three were the major contenders: Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC), who scored 8,794,726 votes and won 12 states; Atiku Abubakar, candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who scored 6,984,520 votes and won 12 states; and Peter Gregory Obi, candidate of the Labor Party (LP), who scored 6,101,533 votes and won 11 states plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Opposition parties have disputed the results since INEC announced the winner. An upsurge of Obi supporters called the “Obidients”—and Atiku Abubakar’s supporters known as the “Atikulants” have challenged the results in court.


Some Nigerians have lost confidence in the leadership of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), arguing that its words and promises mean nothing to Nigerians. 

They emphasized that Prof. Mahmood Yakubu has shown himself to be a disgrace to Nigeria and has brought shame, disgrace, and embarrassment to Nigerians in the global community. They accused the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman and his team of National Commissioners of compromising the results of the February 25 presidential election by deliberately refusing to upload the results at the Polling Units from the BVAS to the IREV. 


Nigerians were disappointed that the IREV, which could have made a difference if INEC diligently and credibly deployed it, failed because they did not use the instrument to upload the presidential election results from Polling Units as promised except for the Senatorial and House of Representatives elections. 


Others decried that Nigerians expected the 2023 general elections to usher in a much more improved and digitized electoral process. On this basis, INEC received an unprecedented sum of 355 billion Naira to conduct a credible election. Despite the enormous financial commitment, and the incredible support received from the international community and civil society organizations, INEC failed to deliver on a straightforward mandate of meeting the expectations of Nigerians.


The aim of this article is not to describe how INEC compromised elections or betrayed Nigerians and political parties. While there were numerous stories of unprofessionalism, rigging, and intimidation by Nigerians and INEC, my task is to identify the critical challenges that undermined and prevented a more efficient and effective election in 2023. In short, what were the essential failures during the general elections? I ask this question not to affix blame. However, I am trying to find the answers to identify systemic gaps and improve our preparedness for subsequent elections. We must move promptly to understand what went wrong and determine how to fix it. After reviewing and analyzing the general election, I identified three specific lessons the Federal government and Nigerians could learn. These lessons, which flow from the critical challenges we encountered, are depicted below.


Tribalism & Nepotism 

The 2023 general elections in Nigeria were crucial as they offered the opportunity to strengthen the country’s democracy and address various prevalent issues that have been worsening for years. But with Nigeria as a nation of many paradoxes, most people make decisions based on primordial sentiments of their connections to candidates – specifically through ethnic and tribal relationships. 


For years, the Nigerian state based its ideology on the easel of religion, ethnicity, and region. We must restructure these notions away from our minds because this trip will not take us anywhere. Several scholars agree about this. Prof. Yusufu Turaki, a Professor of Social Ethics, who has devoted his time to the Nigerian political legacy from the colonial, military, and civilian eras, concluded that the British founded Nigerian politics on three main pillars, which have become Nigeria’s political giants. These three giants are ethnicity/tribalism, regionalism/sectionalism, and religious prejudice. 

Hence, because of these faulty triune foundations, Nigeria continues to suffer from the political problem of leadership-followership combined with the ethnic-regional-religious syndrome. Ethnicity and tribalism are two weapons politicians have successfully deployed to win elections and cause havoc. Before the elections, Nigerian politicians used ethnicity to divert our attention from the main issues surrounding our nation. The election became a Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo affair. Lagos, which formally was the center of unity, was manipulated and weaponized with the ethnicity play card to win the sympathy of Lagosians. 


We, as a nation, need to change how we perceive one another and measure the attributes of those that lead us. Ethnicity and religion should not be the basis of supporting political office seekers. A few days ago, I watched a video of a young man who was fuming with the tribal card mentality in Nigeria. The young man cautioned us not to be fooled by those who pushed us to engage in the tribal card to forget the main issues of our nation. He decried that when the shouting at the Lekki Toll Gate occurred a few years ago, the bullet did not look for only Hausa, Igbo, or Yoruba to pierce through. When students were out of school for more than eight months, it did not affect only Igbo, Hausa, or Yoruba. When we were experiencing the shortage of new Naira notes, the Igbos, Hausas, and Yorubas suffered the same fate. When we stood in long queues at gas stations during the fuel shortage, were marketers telling us they were creating artificial scarcities because they were doing it to punish the Igbos or the Hausas, or the Yoruba? These pertinent questions need honest answers if we are serious about moving this country forward. Hence, our politicians should not use tribalism to fool us or pretend they intend to solve the growing problems we face as a nation.


First, Nigerians’ tribalistic disposition to sensitive issues is one area that needs attention. Tribes are essential based on the fact that they give one identity and a sense of loyalty. 


However, it is no news that Nigerians have used this great ideology as a tool to fight one another. Tribalism and politics are scarcely separable in Nigeria. In Nigeria, ideological issues in politics tend to take second place. It is pertinent to note that tribe categorization is a means to fool us and divide our attention to success, efficiency, and competency. There is a need to clamor for competence. The fact remains that supporting and voting for a candidate based on the tribe will not only allow incompetent hands in power but also make favoritism, nepotism, and tribalism reach their peak. 


The Nigerian populace has to understand that embracing competent and quality leaders will reduce, if not all, curb away many vices in the country’s political space. To achieve this milestone, every Nigerian must know their brother might not be the best candidate for whatever position. The understanding that ‘he is my blood’ is inadequate evidence to support and elect a candidate for whatever job. Until we understand this, Nigeria might remain stagnant as it is presently.


Religious Romanticisms 

In the 2023 election, three candidates from the nation’s three major tribes enjoyed wide popularity. That brought to the fore the sense of rivalry between the different ethnic nationalities in the country. 


The APC’s Muslim-Muslim presidential ticket elicited widespread criticisms across Nigeria, with groups such as CAN frowning at its insensitivity to Nigeria’s religious realities. The Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, criticized the move by the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to produce another president from the North. He called it another Muslim-Muslim ticket of the All-Progressives Congress (APC). Wike cautioned those who claim that Nigeria is ripe for a Muslim-Muslim ticket not to justify and embrace the efforts at retaining the presidency in the North. 


He maintained that those involved in such misrepresentation are deceiving gullible of a few misusing the sensibility of compassionate Nigerians who want a united country that advances national cohesion. But with religion generating so much passion, the disunity among Nigerians has found full expression as we pitched the country as a battleground between Christians and Muslims. The influence of religion on the Nigerian State and the politicization of it by the state have created an unfortunate identity for Nigerian politics today. This influence has made religion lose its spiritual authority in society to become a tool of selfish politicians and individuals to further their interests. 


We must implement the federal character principle at the state and local levels of government. We should try to de-emphasize fanaticism in religion to make way for the rebirth of a new Nigerian society where justice, equity, fairness, and meritocracy hold sway. In my opinion, we need to urgently (as a nation) embark on a serious political and interreligious dialogue with the spirit of honesty, fairness, openness, acceptance, and understanding to move forward. Hence, using tribes and religion as political tools would keep widening the gaps of unity, and we must not allow that to continue. 


As Nigerians, we must collectively bury our religious and ethnic differences and come together to set up a common front against forces threatening the peace and development of our country. We (religious leaders) should be mindful of our utterances to avoid poisoning the minds of Nigerians. Some of us will disagree on this point. Fair enough! But in truth, many of us became too emotional in our utterances than the populace. Most members do not have minds of their own. They too much believe in what we say at the pulpit or what we instruct them to do. As religious men and women of different religious backgrounds, we should know better how to manage our emotions and be positive while delivering sermons or preaching. Now is the time for all men and women of conscience to stand up and offer lasting solutions to the lingering challenges facing the nation embedded in ethnic and religious chauvinism.


BVAS & Ballot Snatching 

The general elections held in 2023 were marred by violence in many parts of the country. The situation led to the loss of lives and disruption of the voting process in many areas. In some States, the Independent National Electoral Commission postponed and rescheduled the elections. Mobs attacked polling stations in Niger, Delta, Lagos, Katsina, and Benue states and took away BVAS machines. Some youths moved in, chased, and stole the BVAS machine in a few areas of Benue State. People at the polling units had to call on security agencies in the area who came in and killed people and recovered the BVAS machines. In a video circulated on Twitter, allegedly taken at the scene, a young man wearing a black tee shirt matched with blue jean trousers lying motionless on the ground with soldiers gathered around him, with several spectators in the background. A male voice could also be heard in the video shouting, “God bless the Nigerian Army. No weapon fashioned against you shall prosper.” In the Oshimili LGA in Delta state, mobs stormed a polling place and stole two BVAS machines. But determining that the election must go ahead, INEC replaced the stolen BVAS machines, beefed up the security agency, and cast votes at the polling station. In Safana LGA in Katsina State, mobs stormed a polling place and stole 6 BVAS machines. But again, INEC was able to recover and use a backup BVAS machine and strengthen security to continue voting at the location. 


On Dipolubi Street in the Surulere area of Lagos, a woman, Efidi Bina Jennifer, was allegedly stabbed by thugs loyal to a political party at the polling unit. She, however, came back to cast her vote after receiving first aid treatment, wearing a heavy bandage on her face dripping with blood. Her picture and video went viral on social media, and some Nigerians commended her determination by donating money for her treatment.


But why would the youth accept to snatch the ballot box knowing that their actions take everything away from the credibility of the election process and its outcomes? Why would young people sacrifice their lives for politicians who care less about them and their welfare? Nigerian politicians have always used young people as thugs during elections. But these politicians who engage other people’s children in violence often keep their children away in “safe havens.” The daring way and how the political thugs disrupted the voting and destroyed materials in such a planned and coordinated sequence takes everything away from the credibility of the process and its outcomes. 

In large numbers of polling units, the voting environment was so hostile and unsafe, thereby scaring away eligible voters, who would only come out to vote at the risk of losing their lives. This thought made me wonder why Asari Dokubo said we our mumu no too much. Someone paid you to go and snatch ballot papers, and you did not even enjoy the money. The worst of it is that you died while carrying the assignment. Then, the politician who sponsored you will not even attend your funeral. No, be juju be that?? Enough of using other people’s children as experimental subjects and keeping ours in safe havens. Enough of using other people’s children as political thugs and politicians send their children to Ivy League schools. Enough of thinking we know the right things for young people without their input or the courtesy of asking for their opinions.


I am not here to argue against a peaceful, harmonious, and collaborative coexistence in Nigeria. Neither am I here to discuss the systemic understanding of the remote and immediate causes of ethnicity, tribalism, and religion. I am here to discuss how year in and year out, Nigerian election processes have become a religious and tribalistic affair. This notion is not a good development at all. We are supposed to have grown past this stage, especially with the increasing level of literacy in the country. Where has unity gone? Where is our one Nigeria? Growing up, my late mother’s nature to be kind and compassionate to people was top-notch. We would go on walks through our neighborhood streets. And at every point, my mother would frequently stop to chat with everyone, remembering every detail of their families and concerns. I never understood why she did this and often stood by feeling impatient. But I later understood that my mother’s love and appreciation for people never differentiated between those in or outside our ethnic tribe. 


In Nigeria today, tribalism has been elevated to dominate the national discourse, control how people think and talk, and determines what they oppose or support. Political elites have promoted tribalism, embraced by the young and the old, passed from generation to generation, and has a basis in the institutions. This notion explains the assumption that conflicts in Nigeria are motivated by ethnic competition. Nigerians must ask, ‘How did we get here? What and who is responsible? Why are countries such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Switzerland, Belgium, and China not half as obsessed with their diversity as Nigeria? The ethnic diversity of Nigeria has been a threat rather than a source of national pride and development. Why? For some time, I have contemplated how politicians and some of their collaborators in the larger society weaponize ethnicity to drive a wedge between the people and advance their game of mass deception. With the shameful developments in the recent elections, it is clear to me that some politicians know no other way to seek a democratic mandate except through transforming polling booths into gruesome crime scenes. Please, do not let anyone fool you. It is all about the self and never about the people. Politicians play on the vulnerabilities of the mob. One thing that came out from the violence that ensued during COVID-19 was that despite the fact the country had flattened the curve of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the economy fully reopened, some of the palliatives meant to cushion the sufferings of the masses at the peak of the pandemic when the economy was practically shutdown, were yet to reach the intended beneficiaries. Some states stacked them in their warehouses and politicians in their homes until hoodlums broke into them and carted away whatever they could. 


To justify their action, some politicians argued that they hid palliatives ahead of the second wave of COVID-19. Meantime, some people emphasized that politicians could not handle the first wave, yet they were planning for a second wave. They lamented that there were no palliatives for impoverished people. Instead, they were for the rich. Others argued that politicians shared the food with party members as many could not get it because they were not party members. The last elections witnessed a resurgence of tribalism, making me realize that we need to re-echo the campaign against tribalism. 


Turning the tide of tribalism is possible―but it won’t be easy. Nigerians have differences and disagreements with each other. We must be able to listen to each other to understand those differences and find common ground. That should be the focus of all of us. We should be conscious that one’s choice today would determine one’s tomorrow. Nigeria is our fatherland. Therefore, peace and unity are our stands. We should step up our thinking and understand that division and conflict are not us. Nigeria is for all tribes regardless of the tribe in power. Together, we stand, divided we fall’ should always be our mantra for this period moving forward. Now is the time to speak up, stand up and support one another for competence and efficiency. ‘Don’t drink poison because they served you with your tribal glass.’ Enough of this tribal and religious romanticism.




Rev. Ma, S.J., is a Jesuit Catholic priest and PhD candidate in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.