When voters in Nigeria go to the polls Feb. 16, they may think they are simply electing a president among dozens of candidates. Not so. With more than 84 million registered voters in Africa’s most populous nation, the election is also the largest exercise of democracy in the history of the continent. That means other Africans are likely watching it with an admiring eye.
Nigeria’s previous election in 2015 was remarkable for bringing about the country’s first democratic transfer of power. This one may have a more subtle distinction. While the campaign has seen old patterns of personality-based politics and appeals of patronage along ethnic, religious, or geographic divides, the contest has been based on ideas more than in the past.
In a country that saw a return of democracy only two decades ago, this shows a new maturity. Nigeria has become a digital-savvy nation with a median age of 18. Younger votes are demanding issue-based campaigns that focus on more than immediate benefits to themselves.
“Nigerians are tired of political abuses. What we want to be talking about are issues and track records of people involved in our elections,” Rochas Okorocha, governor of Imo State, told reporters.
Once-academic topics have become hot campaign issues. Should states be granted more power by Nigeria’s highly centralized government? What kind of economic development would keep terrorist groups like Boko Haram at bay? Should government-run refineries be privatized?
One reason for such issue-based politicking is the fact that the two front-runners are so similar in background. President Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, Atiku Abubakar, are both senior members of the political establishment and come from largely Muslim northern Nigeria. Their major policy difference is over how much control government should have over private business.
It has also helped that the agency in charge of the election, the Independent National Electoral Commission, made this appeal at the start of the campaign: “Political parties are expected to conduct their activities in an organized and peaceful manner, devoid of rancor, hate and/or inflammatory speeches.”
Nigeria’s democratic progress may be part of a wider trend. According to a report last month by the Brookings Institution in Washington, Africa has experienced more than 27 leadership changes since 2015, reflecting greater demand for accountability and stable democracy. In 34 countries that represent 72 percent of Africa’s population, governance has improved in the past decade.
“As citizens get more educated, they are also becoming more vocal and more equipped to hold their elected officials accountable to the needs of the people,” the report found.
More than half of Nigerians live in poverty. In fact, it has the most people living in extreme poverty. Yet despite such basic needs, Nigeria keeps raising the democratic bar for the rest of Africa. This election has elevated it to a realm where more voters differ over ideas rather than the kind of tactics that can drain a democracy.