“The blatant corruption encouraged by this government became very real when the President was campaigning with a governor that was seen on tape collecting bribes.” Osaye Ekomwereren a lawyer tells me. The 23-year-old lawyer recently found herself as the victim of extortion by the Nigerian police when she moved through an unmanned traffic stop. The police officers requested a bribe of 25,000 naira from her to let her go home with her vehicle. “The last four years have been terrible and there is a chance it will get worse. The police you need to save you are only interested in collecting money from you.”
Ekomwereren’s PVC is permanently domiciled in her wallet. The wallet is with her all the time, like her baby. After registering for her voters’ card to participate in the Nigerian elections in August of 2018, it took two weeks of constant visits to the INEC office close to her polling unit to finally get her voters’ card. It is the first time she will be participating in the election process in Nigeria. Four years ago, Ekomwereren was 19, freshly eligible to participate in the elections, but was absent from the country.
However, Ekomwereren is not excited about the elections. For her, there is a chance the elections will not be free and fair with general peace and security going downhill in the already fragile country. Nigeria is already heavily divided along tribal and religious lines and while both major candidates are Northern Muslims, the division along party lines, are very evident too. While both major parties have recently signed a peace accord for the elections, there have been accusations of foul play by both parties.
Ekomwereren is one of over 18 million new voters registered to participate in the general elections in Nigeria to elect a new President, new governors and new members of the National Assembly. Following a largely peaceful handover of power by former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015, Nigerians will be showing up to the polls to decide on a second term for the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari or a new president in Atiku Abubakar who is contesting for this position a record fifth time, appearing on the ballot for the first time. The process has already been marred with the extrajudicial suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria – Justice Walter Onnoghen and the swearing in of the Acting Chief Justice Tanko with the UN labelling it as a breach of human rights.
The Nigerian Bar Association went on a two-day strike to protest this move by the executive branch of the government. The suspension of the CJN followed multiple attempts to shut down the Senate and get the Senate President and his vice arrested by the Nigerian secret police.
The 2015 elections were a referendum on an abysmal showing by the Jonathan-led Federal government, especially with regards to the economy and the insurgency of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s Northeast. But the past four years have not necessarily moved Nigeria forward in the conversations about a better economy or security. Terrorist group – Boko Haram has since fortified its position in Nigeria with a faction partnering with ISIS, attacking military bases and displacing Nigerians while looking to create an Islamic State of West Africa. The IMF in 2018 announced that Nigerians had gotten poorer under the current administration. The country recently got out of its worst recession in twenty-five years, but the gains are yet to be felt by Ekomwereren or even most Nigerians.
The 2018 elections are expected to be another referendum on this federal government, but there are fears that plans have been put in motion to rig the elections in favour of the incumbent. The Guardian released a report that Nigerian voter data is statistically impossible and raises fears of mass rigging. The governments of the UK and the US in January released a statement urging that the elections be free and fair. The Daily Nigeria reported that seventeen sacks of stamped ballot papers were discovered by the police in Kano state and at least two electoral offices with PVCs burnt down close to the elections.
But these fears are just one part of the electoral process. Godfatherism runs deep in Nigeria with people often choosing candidates they don’t quite like but have to abide by because the party has told them to. “There is already an established base of people that will vote not because they are interested in the economy or policies, but because they want their party or their candidate to remain in power.” Ekomwereren sighs as she finishes. While commenting on the state of unemployment in Nigeria, Ditan Okupe, a member of the APC recently came under fire for calling unemployment a “blessing in disguise”.
The elections indicate and solidify Nigeria as a two party state – one of the hallmarks of a stable democracy. George Ajjan, an international political strategist that has worked in over 20 countries explains that Nigeria is ready for the next stage in its development as there is an established and sustainable opposition party at every point in time. “There are more people interested in the voting process because now more than ever, people are seeing that decisions count. The access to social media and better information now allows more people understand government and how they will be affected.”
Israel Afolabi, a filmmaker and a first time voter in Nigeria is very excited to vote because it is an opportunity to join a conversation on what he believes in. “I would have voted differently the last time, but I did not vote. Now, I want to vote with the hopes that my decision might help turn the country and economy around.” But Ajjan does not think the two major candidates can provide any significant change to the direction of the economy. “The incumbent is running as a fighter of corruption and FDI [Foreign Direct Investment] usually comes based on the perception of investment on how corruption is being fought. Atiku has a reputation he is yet to shake off and that might deter foreign investors.”
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the body responsible for conducting elections in Nigeria postponed the Nigerian presidential and National Assembly elections hours to the commencement of the polls scheduled for February 16, citing operational and logistical reasons. The elections will now hold in a week.
Saturday February 23, presents an opportunity for another referendum. And Ekomwereren is looking forward to casting her vote. “To have the chance to move an abysmal government out with the hopes that the new government does better is a little exciting. I know Nigeria will not get better overnight, but knowing I can help put it in the right direction makes me happy.”