Nigerians will next week know whether the upcoming seventh presidential election will improve their democracy or worsen it. Ahead of the polls much of the focus has been on the 18 presidential candidates, even though the race is likely to be won by one of the three front-runners — former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, former Anambra state governor Peter Obi and former Lagos state governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
The elections are slated for February 25 to March 11, beginning with local seats before concluding with the presidential race.
Nigeria has sustained periodic elections since 1999 when it morphed from a coup-prone country. And President Buhari on February 7 inaugurated the Transition Council to oversee a smooth handover of power.
The 2023 elections are the first in which people born in 1999 will be eligible to vote, bringing in a new generation that has learnt about the tales about the Biafra war and the coups in books and movies.
According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, Nigeria registered 9,518,188 new voters, bringing the total number to 93,522,272, indicating a massive interest in voting by Nigerians.
So far, the biggest issue on people’s lips has been whether elections will be marred by the continual banditry and terrorist attacks. Yet all candidates have turned to social media, targeting voters who hardly attend rallies, to sell their manifestos.
Using social media
They have deployed social media to mobilise voters using catchy slogans to play on ethnic and religious sentiment. They have used propaganda, misinformation and hate speech too.
Recently, the Department of State Services (DSS) began cracking down on hate mongers. Dr Peter Afunanya, DSS spokesperson, on February 14 warned politicians against unguarded utterances that could incite hate. Some suspects were arrested for interrogation but it is unlikely the authorities will go the whole hog in an electioneering period.
Candidates have claimed unfairness, too, accusing President Muhammadu Buhari, the incumbent, of steering the boat to favour his party.
One of such policies is President Buhari’s declaration, in October 2022, that the old banknotes would be phased out on January 31, 2023, and the launch of new banknotes. The idea was to eliminate fakes, encourage people to put money into circulation and improve the fiscal stature. The tight changeover deadlines, however, were seen as targeting monied political opponents.
President Buhari, who will stay on until May 29, 2023, after eight years in office, had said that the introduction of the new notes was to stop politicians from buying votes, ensure a level playing field for all candidates, curb corruption, and make kidnapping-for-ransom unattractive.
Buhari also proposed removing the petroleum subsidy to help Nigeria bridge deficit of more than $8 billion in the 2022/2023 budget. Despite then government’s efforts at improving electricity supply, it has suddenly dipped without plausible reasons, other than that generation dropped to below 1,000MW from about 5,000MW.
Two frontline opposition presidential candidates, Peter Obi of Labour Party (LP) and Atiku Abubakar of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), agree with these policies and have appealed for calm. Others like the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Bola Tinubu have accused government agencies of a plot to paint the ruling party in bad light.
He said that implementing new policies during elections and the modalities are wrong and could jeopardise the ruling party’s chances of a win on the ballot.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Resident Electoral Commissioner for the Federal Capital Territory Yahaya Bello said in Abuja that the cash crunch caused by the policies have also affected INEC operations, as most of the expenses are settled in cash.
Many banks have been attacked, including the office of the Central Bank in Benin City, because they have not been dispensing cash. As a result, there have been long queues at ATM kiosks. Petrol stations have little fuel.
The management of Pinnacle Oil and Gas raised the alarm and alleged plans by political players to sabotage the economy by prolonging the fuel scarcity.
A petition by its managing director Robert Dickerman to the DSS alleged a plot by politicians to gain mileage by manipulating supply of petrol.
Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, spokesperson of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), described the Naira swap as the biggest de-marketing strategy against the APC, the ruling party.
“We got here because President Buhari has messed up by allowing this fiasco in the run-up to an election when campaigning to have his party voted for.’’
President Buhari has denied mischief in the new policies.
The declaration of a five-day sit-at-home orders by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) secessionist group may also be a hurdle for INEC in five states in the southeast.
Simeon Ekpa, the IPOB leader who is resident in Finland, has declared that there will be not polls in Biafra land, implying that the southeast would boycott the polls.
The large-scale attacks on electoral infrastructure, personnel and security operatives in the east by gunmen could be another deciding factor in the election.
Chief of Defence Staff Lt-Gen Lucky Irabor has assured voters that the military will take control and ensure peace for the conduct of the elections.
APC currently controls of 21 states, with majority senators and members of House of Representatives. The main opposition PDP has 14 states, with minority senators and House members; and All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) has one state.
The Labour Party, with a large number of youth followers, has no control over any state, and neither does it have members in the National Assembly.