Nigeria sees pivotal election shaped by technology, population growth


If everyone who registered to vote showed up on election day, in less than a month 93.5 million people—twice the population of São Paulo state—would go to the polls to choose a new president in Africa’s largest country, Nigeria. . But it hasn’t been like that.

Historically, electoral participation there has been put in the background, whether due to violence, the difficulty in accessing polling places or the belief that there is no fairness in the process. In the 2019 election, only 36% of those registered voted – voting in the country is not mandatory.

For the elections scheduled for February 25, two factors raise hopes that the scenario will change. One relates to technology, the other to the demography of Nigeria, now the sixth most populous nation in the world and likely the third most populous at the end of the century.

The Nigerian electoral body, Inec, is implementing a biometrics reader that identifies voters’ fingerprints to rule out fraud, something similar to what exists in Brazil. With the new system, called Bvas, the results will also be made available online shortly after the polls close.

The idea, says Amaka Anku, an analyst for Africa at the Eurasia Group consultancy, is to cut the roots of electoral manipulation, which usually happens when ballot papers leave polling centers.

She says the adoption of the Bvas is one of the factors that make the results so uncertain, “because the tricks that dominant parties often use will be very difficult to apply”.

Unheard of since 1999, when the last dictatorship in the country’s history ended, Nigeria has three, not two, leading candidates for the presidency — there are, in total, 18 candidates for the post.

Those who stand out are Bola Tinubu, 70, of the ruling Congress of Progressives, Atiku Abukabar, 76, of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, and Peter Obi, 61, of the little-known Labor Party. There is no clear projection of who will be the winner, but Obi, from the third way, has been drawing attention.

But as it restricts earnings manipulation, the system could trigger bigger brands to invest in the more traditional form of clientelism, says Uche Igwe, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “Money will be crucial for buying votes, and, in this case, dominant parties, with control of the public machine, are more capable of carrying out this type of practice.”

It is in this sense that the second key factor comes into play. For analysts, Obi stands out for being the only Christian on the front line of the dispute, in addition to having strength among a younger slice of the electorate.

In a country with an average age of 17 years, youth has become the most important part of the dispute and has expressed a desire for change. On social media, messages are growing denoting the will to take politics out of the hands of the traditional elites, hitherto unable to combat armed and terrorist violence and the accelerating economic crisis —33% of the population was unemployed in 2020.

No wonder, students and people aged 18 to 34 are, respectively, 28% and 84% of the approximately 10 million new registered voters. Already in the final sum, of the 93.5 million voters, this age group accounts for almost 40%, followed by Nigerians aged 35 to 49 years (36%).

Igwe, from the London School of Economics, recalls that this kind of political awakening by young people is directly related to protests against police violence in 2019, dubbed #EndSars, a reference to a Nigerian police squad known for committing abuses of power. “The youth understood that if they want real and lasting change, it was time to get involved in politics.”

The social upheaval that year heightened dissatisfaction with the dominance of baby boomers — people born after World War II until the mid-1960s — in Nigerian politics, recalls Anku. After all, all presidents since 1999 have been ex-military members of that generation or figures chosen by them.

These leaders dedicated themselves to alleviating ethnic conflicts, something that follows a significant problem. But other challenges knock on the door. In addition to rising unemployment, GDP —today US$440 billion— has been falling since 2014, in a movement that occurs across the continent.

Recent research by the respected institute Afrobarometer showed that Nigeria was the second country in Africa, behind only Gambia, where the poverty experienced — something like the frequency with which citizens experience basic needs — grew the most from 2019 to 2021 compared to 2016 to 2018.

The problem tends to intensify with the population boom. If UN projections are confirmed, the Nigerian population, currently around 223.8 million, should double in the 2060s. Among other aspects, this scenario expresses a high fertility rate —5 children per woman, while the global average is 2 ,3.

And the population grows without ensuring quality of life indicators: Nigeria has the highest infant mortality in the world, with 70.6 deaths per thousand births, and the second lowest life expectancy: 53.9 years, according to with the United Nations.

For Anku, a native of Enugu State, in the south of the country, the sum of these factors will make these the most transparent elections in Nigeria’s recent history. For Igwe, who lives in the capital Abuja, moreover, this is the most important election in a long time.

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