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Nigeria’s Tribalistic Democracy Hasn’t Given up on the Poverty that Sustains It

A succession of undisturbed elections is not the only marker of state stability or social progress, as casual observers without skin in the game looking from the outside may be inclined to believe

Bola Tinubu’s triumphant return to Lagos in the middle of June, twelve days after becoming the ruling All Progressives Party’s candidate for Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections, caused traffic congestion in the upscale Ikoyi neighbourhood where the rich and mighty own the choicest apartments. Crowds of his supporters cheered “Asiwaju” (which means forerunner in Yoruba) from the airport and filled the streets to welcome “City Boy” — another one of the 70-year-old’s appellations.

Tinubu was the Lagos State governor between 1999 and 2007. He will face Atiku Abubakar (Nigeria’s vice president within that period, who will represent the Peoples Democratic Party) and other candidates, including another former state governor, Peter Obi, from the south-east whose Labour Party platform does not yet have the national presence of the APC—the party of the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari—or the PDP in terms of the number of state governors or legislators, or even membership. As such, the election is framed as being largely between Tinubu and Abubakar.

The forthcoming election will be the first since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 to not feature a former military head of state or incumbent president, suggesting the beginning of another era for Nigerian democracy. A seventh successive presidential election in Nigeria will be evidence of Africa’s increasing adjustment to the idea of governments formed by the people even as the West Africa region is dotted with coups. But a succession of undisturbed elections is not the only marker of state stability or social progress, as casual observers without skin in the game looking from the outside may be inclined to believe. Nigeria has returned to a democratic system of government, but the question of whether it functions “by the people and for the people” is yet to be answered. In fact, Tinubu became his party’s flagbearer in a manner that revealed weak designs that allow a performative Nigerian democracy to prevail in favour of permanent class leaders who have a roster for how to exchange power between each other. In this paradigm, the voting masses are mere passengers along a crudely modernized rollercoaster of feudalism.

Tinubu built his brand (as the de facto national leader of the APC and now presidential candidate) on being able to influence elections in other states within the south-west region that includes Lagos State which he governed. That influence was first honed in Lagos where every other governor since 2007 has been practically single-handedly chosen by Tinubu. In 2019, he ensured the one he chose four years earlier would not get a second four-year term by primarying him with another one of his former aides. Tinubu sees this legacy of crowning state governors as part of his appeal, touting it in what has now become a famous speech given in the final week of campaigning before APC’s primaries. The financial might required to have such influence is partly why Tinubu has never quite shaken off the allegations of corruption that continue to form a cloud around his decades-old presidential ambition. If Lagos State’s revenue coffers have indeed been rigged with conduits to Tinubu’s personal safes, it has enabled him to exert unmatched sway and play kingmaker to a level that none of Nigeria’s five living former heads of state or presidents is able to. This is why Tinubu is popularly called the “Jagaban,” which loosely translates to the leader of warriors.

The other pillar of Tinubu’s influence is tribalism, a factor that always comes to play in Nigerian elections but one to which the veteran leaned heavily, publicly and without scruple this season. What “make America great again” became for Donald Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 US elections, “emi lo kan” —it is my turn—is shaping up to be for Tinubu ahead of 2023. Emi lo kan, at the time Tinubu first declared it during that famous speech, was an indirect warning to President Buhari to not stand in his way of succeeding him by choosing a successor from the northern part of the country (where the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups dominate. Buhari is Fulani). It doubled as a clarion call to Tinubu’s fellow Yorubas to join him in a bid to reclaim the Nigerian presidency, with Olusegun Obasanjo being the last man from the ethnic group to lead the country in 2007. At the event where he made that speech and on Twitter, many from his ethnic extraction have embraced the call.

But this combination of questionable wealth, political power and tribalism is enabled by another crucial pillar: popular poverty. Despite being Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria has the continent’s highest number of extremely poor people — 70 million, per the World Bank. Tinubu’s Lagos is the melting pot of a widening national inequality between the haves in Ikoyi where the former governor owns luxury real estate, and the never-haves in most other parts of the state, including Ikoyi. When a third of a country’s labour force is unemployed, anyone who dispenses money lavishly reasonably becomes a benevolent leader. It’s no surprise then that Tinubu and other principal actors in this season’s political theatre spent up to $25,000 per delegate to win primaries. Supply met demand, but the demand is a product of decades of mismanagement of the public treasury by successive governments in Nigeria, engendering poverty and a patronage system.

So far, much of this analysis has focused on Tinubu because his presidential campaign will benefit from the power of his party’s incumbency, making him the man to beat. But Abubakar, his rival, also hopes to become president by taking advantage of the same feudal design of Nigeria’s democracy, including unregulated campaign financing. In the north where Abubakar is from, the agenda is set by an aristocratic class of long-term politicians and religious leaders who exercise stiff control over all factors of production. Most extremely poor Nigerians are in the north. Most out-of-school Nigerian children are there too. What results from a combination of both is a docile electorate nudged to prioritize ethnic affiliations above all else during election cycles. Indeed, Abubakar’s calculus is that Tinubu, who is a Muslim, will not find a popular enough Christian northerner to be his vice presidential candidate (Abubakar has chosen an Igbo man from the south-south Delta State), hence potentially drawing the majority of the northern vote to the PDP.

Taken together, the outlook for next year’s elections is that it will keep Nigeria’s democracy rolling without evolving it to one where people with better education, a little more money in their pockets and food on their dinner tables might choose differently. While promising to improve Nigeria’s economy, neither candidate is expected to rock the tribalism-feudalism train. That should disappoint citizens of other African countries looking to Africa’s most populous nation for democratic guidance. But seeing Nigeria’s democracy for the patchwork it is may evoke bottom-up alternatives that could teach the continent how best to design functional democracy.


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