Nigeria’s 2023 Elections: The Ballot or The Bullet? By Raphael Adebayo

The assumption that what Nigeria needs in 2023 is another round of general elections, in keeping with the spirit of democratic practice, is both a quietist misguidedness on the part of the millions, and an absolutist disdain on the part of the political class. The one, staggering about in mass confusion, is by virtue of this assumption, planning to remain a victim of organized deception; the other, by virtue of its historical constitution, perpetuates this assumption as a critical fundament of its own survival and fulfilment. It is at once an unabashed attempt to slake the ‘internal stability’ thirst of the political class and the ‘regional stability’ thirst of the West. By skipping the reality for the illusive, the tangible for the intangible, which is what general elections in 2023 posits, these social forces are once again burrowing the deep of irreversible tailspin. 

The almost hackneyed but irreducible outburst of Chief Obafemi Awolowo that Nigeria is ‘a mere geographical expression’ remains potent and instructive today. As a geographical expression, Nigeria wants the qualities of a homogenous collection of humanity. ‘Nations are not merely multicoloured patches in the atlas,’ asserts the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, ‘they answer to some internal logic and historic coherence, and an evolved tradition of managing incompatibilities.’ To the wheeler-dealers of Nigeria PLC, however, this axiom offends their cognitive dissonance sensibilities: it is both a settled reality and a bitter pill to swallow. As a result, the Northern feudal C-suite and its allied peers in the South continually dredge up ways to sustain the corporation, of which ‘democratic’ elections remain an injunctive ritual of self-perpetuation.

The Character and Goal of Elections in Nigeria

There has been no radical departure from the character and the goal of elections in Nigeria at independence and the character and the goal of elections in Nigeria now; if anything, the struggle is between the depth of decadence in the past and the depth of decadence now. The character of elections in Nigeria embodies the very pit of ‘absoluteness and arbitrariness’, by which Claude Ake described the colonial project in Africa; and which is the adopted mode of electioneering and politicking, and the precursor to misgovernment in present-day Nigeria. In its absolute form election is a political warfare for and within the political class—the incumbent power, the ruling party and the farcical opposition, political careerists and political patrons—wherein democratic will is malignantly manipulated or truncated if deemed unfavourable, and advanced if deemed favourable. Hence, what should be a peaceful expression of social forces becomes a scene of gory hostilities, leaving in its wake cadavers of old and young—like Acheju Abuh, the woman who was burnt to death or Daniel Usman, the teenager who was gunned down in Kogi State, or the dozens who were similarly killed during the general elections in 2019—and countless disenfranchised voters. Political violence (whether before, during or after elections) is the instrument of entrenching absoluteness, and the mode of achieving and legitimating political power in Nigeria. 

In 2019, the outgoing Governor of Imo State, Rochas Okorocha, after eight years of decadent rule and unlimited human rights violations, held the INEC’s Returning Officer for Imo West Senatorial District, at gunpoint to declare the result of the election in his favour; he would later assume the Senatorial office after he was declared to have duly won the election by Nigeria’s electoral umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission. Rather than being an exception, however, this is the rule by which the political class emphasizes the gameness of democratic elections in Nigeria. Historically, there are many such parallels: for example, the several instances during Shehu Shagari’s regime when unbridled Mobile Police thugs of the Nigerian Police, also known as the Kill and Go squad, disrupted court proceedings to compel judges to adjudicate in favour of candidates sanctioned by Shagari’s National Party of Nigeria. Those ones, unlike the proceedings that followed the 2019 presidential election, did not bother with the farce of presenting a police officer to act as the sole witness for electoral validation—they simply coerced judges to declare results in their candidates’ favour. If we again look farther back in history, we would recall the electoral violence that engulfed the Western Region in 1964 during the Akintola days. But, let’s return to the current Fourth Republic in which, according to available statistics, no fewer than 2000 election-related deaths were recorded between 1999 and 2019—though a trend that is by no means exclusive to Nigeria on the continent. To Nigeria’s political class, political power is won and maintained through violence, and the people are mere fleas to be sacrificed for its sake at any moment. 

To Nigeria’s political class, violence is the inevitable character of elections. It is the means of emphasizing domination and the vehicle for appropriating ‘legitimate’ democratic processes. To entrench absoluteness, any and all acts of violent arbitrariness cease to be scarce, leading to a palpably hostile and highly repressed society—which is what Nigeria is, in theory and in practice. The millions, therefore, are subjected to a grip of ruthless and absolute power under which the cost of democratic resistance is perceived to be too steep to suffer, especially since the brutality of the political class knows no bound: for instance, the militarization of the 2019 general elections and the ruthless reaction of government to the peaceful End SARS protests. In such a society where arbitrariness and absoluteness are the norm, the millions begin to suspect that neither negative peace—which is the absence of direct violence, nor positive peace—which is the absence of structural violence (according to Galtung), is probable. The goal of elections, therefore, becomes the perpetuation of the status quo, wittingly and unwittingly. 

The Knackered Electorate

Since the character of elections is underscored by brutality and fatality, political power—assumes the millions—is the preserve of the political class, and any act of democratic resistance or subversion of such decadence should be minimal, if at all; but entirely not radical. Hence, whilst the political class on the one hand sees hordes of fleas to be cajoled through vote-buying and manipulated by fielding kleptomaniacs and gerontocrats as authentic candidates, or wasted through brutal violence in its ‘democratic game’ during elections; the millions on the other hand either see a bazaar, where the ballot is sold to the highest bidder (though this is also a type of violence), or a predicament wherein one must decide between the devil and the deep blue sea. But of course, the latter analyses the political situation only tangentially, that is, at the befogged level which the political class has conditioned the millions to analyse the political situation: that any decisive political action must be between the political class and the political class. Hence, when in 1993 the millions veered off its quietist track, the political class (in its military fatigue) was swift to invalidate the election, in keeping with its fashion. And so was the popular will subverted in 1999, 2007, and 2019 by the political class. In the same way, the ongoing political conversation about 2023 among the millions on the one hand, and starry-eyed analysts on the other, is fast becoming misted with prospects from the political class. 

At the moment, the popular opinion on Nigeria among starry-eyed analysts is that, there has been a rude awakening of the millions from quietism since the End SARS protests in 2020, and that voter registration, more voter participation, fielding of youth candidates, and so on, should constitute the nucleus of political action towards a paradigm shift in 2023. In reality, however, the problem is not so much about voter registration—84 million voters were already registered before the elections in 2019 (although 13% or 11 million did not claim their Permanent Voter’s Card)—as it is about voter participation, voter confidence, a robust electoral process, and such. But again, far from being an exception, low voter turnout—in fact, an ever-dwindling voter turnout, particularly in relation to total registered voters—is the norm in Nigeria. Nonetheless, the folly in this thinking is easily exposed when these analysts are confronted with: one, the financial costs of elections in Nigeria, both for the candidature and the country; two, the rigid monopoly of the political class on private and public institutions that are used to underwrite these costs; three, the political economy of the country, particularly in relation to private and public lending institutions, which disfavours political neophytes who are not sprigs of the political class. Effectively, the necrotic socio-political system in Nigeria precludes any random neophyte from political power and renders his or her toil a Sisyphean task, regardless of paternalistic concessions by the political class—such as the Not Too Young to Run Act or the Electoral Reform Bill, which has finally become law after being a chess-game between the Ninth National Assembly and the Presidency for so long. 

But one need not the noetic prowess of Einstein, nor the wisdom of Athena, to understand that the problem is not so much about voter registration and voter turnout, as it is about the knackered electorate and the decadent electoral process, which altogether are symptomatic of a spurious democracy—a democracy that does not work—and a chronically diseased country.

The Unremarked Dimension

In clear view of these starry-eyed political analyses, however, is the unremarked dimension of Nigeria’s true existential condition, which threatens anything but another round of undemocratic elections to legitimate the status quo. And this is where we are compelled, alas, to apprise Nigeria’s starry-eyed analysts of the words of John Stuart Mill, that ‘the future of mankind will be gravely imperilled, if great questions are left to be fought over between ignorant change and ignorant opposition to change.’ For, our starry-eyed analysts, surely, would know that the most critical question in Nigeria today, is the very question of statehood. They would know, to be sure, that Nigeria has yet to resolve that riddle which Soyinka posed years ago, which is again gaining palpable traction among the millions—that is, ‘When is a nation?’ Surely, the mouldy view of our analysts cannot be so grim that they are oblivious of the reality that, even by the standards set by the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the very idea of Nigerian statehood is, like never before, currently flimsy and hotly contested.

The temporal pact of oneness, by which the arbitrary boundaries of Nigeria were tenuously carried forward by ethnic nationalities following independence from Britain, has now splintered into potentially explosive fragments of disillusioned entities. These fragments, however, are consequences of the horribly managed strains that have from inception been latent in Nigeria. Thus, that barometer of statehood which was so elegantly assembled in 1933, has judged Nigeria very harshly. For instance, the Fulani Islamist insurgencies in Northern Nigeria, which have become a real threat as they spread to Southern Nigeria, claiming thousands of lives and displacing even more in their wake, have thrown up pockets of resistance by ethnic nationalities in Southern Nigeria and other parts of the country, effectively creating cells of nationalist resistances and disarticulating the sophistic postulate that Nigeria enjoys a sacrosanct ‘territorial integrity,’ or even absolute sovereignty, which are fundamental to statehood. But the political class, particularly the feudal C-suite of Nigeria PLC, in response to these growing resistances, are convinced that self-perpetuation—under what Soyinka calls the ‘principle of inviolability’, which is the absolutist philosophy undergirding the Nigerian contraption—through ‘democratic elections’, is the only national priority. And worse, our starry-eyed analysts, in their palpable state of confusion, are ostensibly convinced that increased voter participation will keep Nigeria in its divine shell of inviolability. But, again Soyinka cautions: ‘only a community of fools will entrust its most sacred possession—nationhood—yet again to a class that has proven so fickle, so treacherous and dishonorable.’

The Ballot or The Bullet? 

Democratic elections ought to emphasize a people’s will for constant stock-taking, and their desire for positive transformation. The want of this quality in the electoral process of any society is sufficient to inspire a people to initiate a different kind of stock-taking; one that, in the sense which has become critical in Nigeria, must shatter the untruths which such society symbolizes. As a failed state, the purposelessness of another round of ‘democratic elections’ in Nigeria is obvious: it will only provide another ‘democratic’ opportunity for the political class to indulge in sabre-rattling, vote-rigging, and ruthless violence that will lead to more heaps of cadavers, and endless bleats of a deprived electorate. History has shown that with or without the ballot, the bullet is constant in Nigeria. And as far as the Nigerian contraption which is the real problem is concerned, one thing has proven itself to be true: you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

As recent developments reliably suggest, Nigeria’s awkward run towards another round of elections is a kind of palliative gamble by the political class, to defuse the nationalist volcanoes threatening to explode the contraption. Those who have dared to beat the gong of this looming explosion—including those who had begun to mount the bastion of defence against Shagari’s infamous feudalist allegorization that a part of Nigeria is divinely destined to ‘hold the cow by the horns’ whilst another is divinely destined to milk it—have either been jailed, like the leaders of the Indigenous People of Biafra and Yoruba Nation in Southern Nigeria or forced into exile by General Buhari’s Gestapo. Hence, the goal of the ballot for the millions in Nigeria, this time, must be different. This time, the choice for the millions is neither between the APC, All Progressives Congress and the PDP, People’s Democratic Party, or any other political party. Nor is it between the old guardsmen and youthful political prospects: A decision to employ the ballot, not as a habitual democratic act in a necrotic system, but as a radical act of historic stock-taking and reconditioning, is the only categorical imperative for Southern Nigeria and the Middle-belt. ‘Sometimes,’ declared Nelson Mandela, ‘there is nothing one can do to save something that must die.’


Raphael Adebayo is a Writer, a Scholar and a Human Rights Activist from Nigeria. The idea of ‘historic stock-taking and reconditioning’ in this article is expounded on in his new book, De-Nigerianization, which is now available on Amazon and in the United Kingdom. 


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