In Nigeria’s presidential election, a rare chance to turn the tide

After Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, thousands of Nigerians watched their new blue and white flag be raised over the then capital Lagos at midnight. As fireworks light up the streets, hope and promise fill the air.

Nigerians’ hopes have been dashed many times since. They have endured a bitter civil war, decades of military dictatorship, and for the past eight years, increased violence and economic failures under President Muhammadu Buhari. A record 89% of Nigerians think the country is going in the wrong direction.

But this weekend presidential election —one of the most severe consequences in the 23 years since dictatorship finally ended and democracy took hold — many see an opportunity to change course.

And as Nigerians hit the road on Saturday to polling stations across their vast and diverse country, the race to lead their fledgling democracy and countless young citizens seems to be widening. open.

People started going to the polls long before they opened. In Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, voters searched for their names on lists posted on the wall. Young people play football on streets that are normally congested with traffic but have been cleared for voting.

But soon, reports of violence at polling stations – particularly in Lagos – flooded in. At one point, the men pointed guns at several journalists including an NPR reporter when they interviewed voters, shot in the air and stole ballot boxes. A research organization, SBM Intelligence, document incidents of violence in at least 13 of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Across the country, many polling stations are also open late according to Yiaga Africa, a nonprofit that observes elections, angered some voters, but largely their patience. In the capital Abuja, three young women spread blankets on a patch of grass and waited.

The monopoly on power that the two major parties have held for two decades has been shaken by an unexpected third-party candidate, Peter Obi. Many polls have shown him in the lead, fueled by enthusiastic young voters, but whether they will be enough to vote for him remains uncertain.

Other polls show both the ruling party’s candidate, Bola Tinubu, and Atiku Abubakar, a businessman and longtime opposition candidate, leading.

In Africa’s most populous country of 220 million people, more than 93 million people have signed up for a permanent voting card, the highest number ever, the electoral commission said.

On a recent afternoon outside an event hall in Lagos, 34-year-old Joshua Pius, a former Buhari voter, 34, a drummer on vacation, said he earns so little that he needs to join his family. His young family was forced to cut back on food. His children are 1 and 3.

Mr. Pius was determined to make his next count, he said, as fun highlife music from a funeral blared from the hall. Funerals in Nigeria are often more a celebration of life than a melancholy occasion.

“Your only hope is your PVC,” he said, using the acronym for permanent voter card.

Like many Nigerians, Mr. Pius was blindsided by a sudden nationwide shift cash shortage – a crisis arose when the government decided to redesign and launched the new currency just before the election. The central bank of Nigeria has taken billions of naira (local currency) out of circulation, while putting only a small part in new notes. Even those with money in the bank could not find cash to pay for food, medicine and other necessities, causing widespread suffering.

Sorting that mess is just one of the colossal tasks the winner of an election will face. GDP per capita plummeted during Mr. Buhari’s tenure. oil production fall last year to its lowest level in more than three decades. The Troops are deployed across the country, battling Islamist militants, separatists, kidnappers and community clashes.

But the potential of Africa’s largest democracy perhaps outweighs the challenges. Nigerians speak proudly of their country’s natural wealth: In addition to oil, the country has an abundant supply of gas and solid minerals, as well as a larger variety of minerals. agricultural potential than most other African countries because of its vast, fertile land and abundant water resources.

And that’s not to mention its human capital. The country’s unofficial motto, “Naija no dey carry last” – English roughly translates to “Nigerians never reach the end” – speaks to their drive and creativity, which is reflected in the field. technology is exploding, Nollywood Film Industry and that global music phenomenon is black people.

Recently, however, young people driving that innovation have either left in droves or are planning.

One of them, Henry Eze, 31, a music producer, was on the sidelines of a political rally in Lagos this month, dapper in a three-piece despite the heat. Mr Eze said he left Nigeria for Europe in 2017, but ended up being placed in a detention center in Libya, where he witnessed horrific abuses and had to bury dozens of his friends. before being rescued and sent home.

The rally he attended was for Mr Obi, who six months ago was not considered a strong candidate, but was run a remarkably successful campaign, especially online. He was a surprise challenger against the ruling party’s candidate, Mr. Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos, and Mr. Abubakar, the longtime opposition candidate. Out of a total of 18 candidates, a fourth candidate, Rabiu Kwankwaso, could prove to be an exploiter by dividing the vote in the northern regions.

Mr. Eze said that if Mr. Abubakar or Mr. Tinubu, whom he calls “vampires” for siphoning off the country’s wealth, win the election, he will not hesitate to leave Nigeria again, even though he has been banned. hurt by his first attempt. escape.

“Everywhere is better than Nigeria,” Mr. Eze said.

Looking for his polling place on Saturday morning in Ikoyi, an upscale Lagos neighborhood, 18-year-old Maxwell Sadoh, a student and Obi supporter, echoed his words.

Mr Sadoh said: “It is painful to see what we have become.

Many Nigerians think their leaders couldn’t get any worse.

Some, like Mr. Eze, are pinning their hopes on Mr. Obi. Others think Mr. Abubakar’s business acumen will help put Nigeria back on the path to prosperity. Many support Mr. Tinubu, who is known as a discoverer of the talent and experience that many believe the country needs.

Michael Odifili, a professional disinfector who was at the polling station in Lagos where Mr. Tinubu voted on Saturday morning, said that Mr. Tinubu’s experience as governor gives him a good chance to lead the country.

“We want Tinubu to fix everything, every mistake of the past eight years,” Mr. Odifili said.

All three leading candidates – who all face allegations of corruption or wrongdoing – are promising some big changes from the way things have been in the past: an end to fuel subsidies. helped push Nigeria into a financial loophole and allowed the exchange rate to be set by market forces rather than officials.

For the first time, not one of the leading candidates has a military background, a big deal considering the former military rulers turned democrats who have ruled Nigeria for 16 out of 23 years since democracy was revived in 1999.

For a country so young, with an average age of just over 18, politics is dominated by older men, in many ways playing by the old rules.

A well-known though murky phenomenon in Nigerian politics is the role of godfatherA loose term for the “big guys” who play a major role in making or breaking the careers of politicians.

Mr. Tinubu is one of the country’s most famous godfathers, brag that he had carefully selected his successors as governor of Lagos. Mr. Tinubu even claimed that there was no himMr. Buhari will never become president.

This partly explains the slogan coined by Mr. Tinubu and often associated with his own presidential run: “It’s my turn.”

Mr. Abubakar, from the main opposition party, has run for office five times and lost. He could be forgiven for thinking it was his turn too.

And on a recent visit to a market in Lagos, Mr Obi told the crowd: “If anyone talks about ‘My turn,’ it has to be me,” alluding to the fact that he has never been. Is there any president from his region, southeast.

More recently, other West African countries have experienced a wave of coups. Afrobarometer, a survey organization, found that a number of factors combined to lead to those coups: dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, a lack of trust in the president, approval of the military team and the perception that corruption is on the rise.

In Nigeria, the indicators are also going that way, according to the head of Afrobarometer.

In this matter last night Under British rule in 1960, after the flag raising and fireworks ushered in the first day of independence, the people of Nigeria waited for dawn.

Often in the years since, analysts have predicted the disintegration of Nigeria, citing the words of its most beloved writer, Chinua Achebe, who has quoted WB Yeats: “Everything fell apart: pour. The center can’t hold it.”

So far, it has been held.

Elian Peltier and Oladeinde Olawoyin contributed reporting.


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