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Election chaos to test winner and loser alike

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More work to be done: president-elect Bola Tinubu displays his certificate, accompanied by his wife, Oluremi Tinubu, and Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria. Election officials declared Tinubu the winner of the presidential election on Wednesday, keeping the ruling party in power in Africa's most populous nation (Photograph by Ben Curtis/AP)

For democracies, young and old, elections are a threefold test of institutional capacity and political inclination. The first is the state’s ability to conduct a fair vote, free of violence. The second is the losers’ disposition to accept the outcome and extent to which they embrace the role of a responsible opposition. And the third is the winners’ willingness to incorporate the aspirations of all, and not just those who voted for them, in their governing agenda.

Nigeria’s general election, the world’s largest this year, has come through the first of these tests with little distinction and much doubt. The vote last Saturday was marred by logistical and technological failures, earning the Independent National Electoral Commission the reproach of international observers and the wrath of opposition parties. There are accusations of voter suppression and vote manipulation, and at least one of the losers will contest the outcome in the courts. There are fears of violence in the days ahead.

All this bodes ill, not only for the country but for the continent. Africa has experienced dramatic democratic retrenchment in the past few years, and its autocrats will claim vindication in the Nigerian mess. The case for democracy will erode further if the winners and losers fail the second and third tests.

The results do not allow for much optimism. As a result of the INEC’s incompetence, the declared winner, Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress party, faces a crisis of legitimacy even before he can assume office. It does not help that he won only a plurality (35.2 per cent) and not a majority of votes — or that the turnout, at 28.6 per cent of the 87.2 million who registered to vote and collected their voting cards, was the lowest since 1999, when democracy was restored in Nigeria.

His main rivals, Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, will hope to capitalise on the APC’s tepid performance to make gains in elections for state governorships scheduled for March 11. In the longer term, their supporters will be rooting for the Tinubu Government to fail — the sooner, the better.

But the actions of Tinubu, Abubakar and Obi at the national level will have the greatest bearing on Nigeria’s dire economic situation, which is manifested in soaring inflation and unemployment, a depreciating currency, pervasive insecurity and crippling state indebtedness. Investors are pessimistic about the new president’s prospects.

It is not hard to see why. a weak mandate will make it hard for Tinubu to implement the painful reforms needed to fix the country’s finances. The most important of these is the phasing out of fuel subsidies, which cost the state more than $1 billion a month — about two thirds of its expected revenue from oil and gas production.

Abubakar and the PDP are expected to revert to their wonted role as political spoilers. Much, then, will depend on how Obi plays his part in opposition. His 24.4 per cent share of the vote represents a spectacular improvement for Labour: its candidate in the last election won 0.02 per cent. Much of his support comes from young Nigerians who are scornful of the establishment parties. Politically, he stands to benefit from leaving Tinubu twisting in the wind.

But Obi, too, promised to cut the gasoline subsidies. Supporting the President in that endeavour may not endear him to his base, but it is the right thing to do. Having transformed Nigerian politics as a candidate for the presidency, the next test for Obi is to redefine what it means to be a leader of the opposition.

Tinubu, too, will need to break from the past — his own as well as that of the presidency. His political career, dogged by allegations of corruption, marks him out as a power broker of the old school, like most of the men who have held the country’s highest office. But the knowledge that a large majority of Nigerians did not want him as president should govern his actions: earning their trust, and their votes in the next go-round, will be his test.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time

• Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time

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Published March 04, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated March 04, 2023 at 7:40 am)

Election chaos to test winner and loser alike

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