Was Nigeria’s Presidential Election Rigged?
“Even the police were overwhelmed,” says a resident of Ughelli, Delta State recalling how “suspected thugs” disturbed voting in the gubernatorial elections on 18 March 2023. In nearby Enugu State, a voter reported that political party representatives “[followed] you right into the ballot box to see who you voted for” and paid some 200 naira (£0.35) when you voted for them. The elections, delayed by a week because of the contested presidential results, were marred by intimidation, vote-buying, and violence. Despite the 87 million registered voters, the low turnout reflected that of the presidential election on 25 February which was the lowest in Nigerian history.
On 21 March 2023, Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi, who came third in February with 25% of the vote, filed a court petition to contest the results which saw Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) declared the winner with 37% and perennial opposition figure Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) come second with 29%. The election, traditionally a two-party bout, was the most tightly contested in Nigeria’s recent history. The PDP, in the same week, announced that Abubakar would also be filing a case having led protests at the Abuja headquarters of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in early March. The opposition’s petitions will start a long legal battle – in 2019, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to that year’s election results after seven months. Tinubu is set to be inaugurated on 29 May.
Both opposition leaders, and an array of other parties, claim that the election was rigged. To cancel a vote in Nigeria, however, a petitioner must prove that the Electoral Act was violated and that this non-compliance with the law affected the results. Previous elections have seen violence, intimidation and even ballot-box snatching – but no challenger has successfully proven that these transgressions significantly affected the outcome. 2023’s presidential election, however, saw the first ever use of an electronic voting system which suffered flaws that some claim hint at conspiracy. Could this then be Nigeria’s first invalidated presidential election?
Obi aims to be declared the true winner of February’s election by seeking to prove in court that he won the most votes. Additionally, his petition asks the Court of Appeal to nullify President-elect Tinubu’s candidacy on the grounds that he did not meet the minimum educational requirement to stand (according to the Labour Party spokesman, “[it] has to do with the presentation of his primary school certificate.”) While no presidential election has been successfully contested before, Obi did challenge the 2003 Anambra State gubernatorial results and succeeded three years later, having been able to prove that he had won the most votes. With a reputation for frugality and sound financial management, earned while governor by spending on education, paying salaries on time and leaving behind sizeable savings, Obi campaigned on breaking the two-party system (PDP and APC in some form) that had dominated Nigerian politics since the end of military rule in 1999. He appealed to the country’s social media-competent youth, members of the so-called “coconut head generation”, and those young Nigerians involved in anti-establishment protests like EndSars. Despite allegations of financial misconduct and divisive campaigning, Obi, a Catholic Igbo with a Muslim northerner running-mate, tried to appeal across ethnic and religious divides. As reflected in the election results, he primarily worked to win votes in PDP strongholds in southern Nigeria – ironic, considering he was the PDP vice presidential candidate in 2019...for Abubakar.
Aged 76 and running for president for the sixth time, Abubakar, a northerner from Adamawa, having wrestled the PDP candidacy from popular Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike, tried to remind Nigerians of his successes as vice president to Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007 including creating jobs, fostering GDP growth and overseeing reforms in banking, telecommunications and pensions. Allegations of corruption, for example surrounding his role in privatising state assets, continued to follow him though his supporters emphasised his astute business skills (having co-founded multinational oil logistics company Intels) and political experience – he switched from civil servant to politician in 1989, went into exile under military dictator Sani Abacha’s rule, and then returned to serve with Obasanjo in Nigeria’s democratic transition. He maintains that the 2023 election was rigged and aims to prove that the president-elect, another septuagenarian who was forced into exile by Abacha in the 1990s, should not have won.
Tinubu, nicknamed the “Godfather”, is a bastion of south-west Nigerian politics having served as Lagos State governor from 1999 to 2007 and being instrumental in the formation of the APC and its subsequent electoral success under outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari. The accountant and ex-Mobil oil executive pointed to Lagos’ economic achievements, high foreign investment, and transport reforms that eased the notorious traffic in the city of 25 million as evidence of his political aptitude. However, he was dogged by allegations of: corruption, for example a US DoJ case indirectly linking him to heroin trafficking (in which he reached a settlement and was not charged); vote-buying, stemming from rumours about a bullion van seen enter his property; and, poor health. Now set to become president, Tinubu, a Muslim Yoruba who ran with a Muslim northerner and slogan “Emi Lokan” (“It’s my turn”), must deal with the challenges left by Buhari including pervasive insecurity, ethnic divisions, high unemployment, and growing inflation.
The first challenge, though, is to get to inauguration day – a task made much harder with the phrase “election rigging” on everyone’s minds.
The Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) was introduced by INEC in 2021 as a way to prevent election fraud and now, ironically, lies at the heart of allegations that the election was fraudulent. BVAS enabled dual identification of voters – through fingerprints and facial recognition. The aim was to prevent those ineligible or with an invalid Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC) from casting a ballot – furthermore, BVAS was meant to upload results to the INEC portal (IReV) evading the risk of tampering.
So what went wrong?
(DISCLAIMER: regarding the widespread online misinformation about the Nigerian elections, this article claims to use reliable sources, but the reader is welcome to do their own fact-checking.)
On election day, staff at many of the beyond 175,000 polling stations were unable to upload results from the station to the INEC server – as upload delays continued, Labour, the PDP and two other parties accused INEC of violating the Electoral Act. INEC apologised for what it called “technical glitches” and also blamed the lack of internet access at some polling stations. No explanation was given for why the presidential results seemed to take longer to upload than the concurrent legislative votes (members of Nigeria’s National Assembly were elected on the same day). Abubakar’s and Obi’s running-mates appeared together at a press conference where the PDP VP candidate said: “"If the system was down and they knew it was down, then they ought to have postponed the election. If the system was not down, and they didn't allow the upload of the results in, [it] means that they have connived.”
Social media was awash with claims of over-voting and videos of violence, voter intimidation, and ballot-snatching – some of these claims and videos were authentic. BBC journalists reporting from Lagos recount how “thugs disrupted the voting process” and the EU’s election observer, Barry Andrews, confirmed that there was “evidence of vote-buying” but did not speculate further. There were also errors and mix-ups on the day: for example, instead of photos of election results, images of people were uploaded to the server. In addition, results from Sokoto State were put with those from Rivers State. On 1 March, the BBC reported that “subsequent checks show that many of the affected polling units now have the right results.”
Unauthenticated posts showing results from polling stations where there was no voting went viral online. Rumours about election rigging spread wildly when people (including social media influencers) started sharing an unauthenticated post about the INEC server being hacked – the alleged website however was a phishing link. In addition to allegations without evidence that the BVAS machines were faulty and the sharing of fake election results (which sowed confusion), there were also rumours circulating online, using images from historic, unrelated stories, that former President Obasanjo, now 86, had deployed his security detail to stop truckloads of Chadians travelling to vote illegally in Kaduna State and that he had “stormed” the INEC collation centre in the capital with the “real” election results.
While Tinubu’s supporters have pointed to the fact that Obi won Lagos and Abuja as evidence that the election was fair, there were serious logistical problems that weakened the vote. Voting delays saw some people have to wait all day to cast a ballot (with others giving up) and at some polling stations, electoral staff never showed up. As Andrews diplomatically put it: “we would encourage any complaints to be brought through the appropriate legal channels. But our observations certainly bear out significant shortcomings in the electoral process.”
Regardless of the outcome of the legal contest to the results, whoever becomes Nigeria’s next president (or indeed, presidents) faces immense challenges to tackle the issues facing the country today. Inflation stood at 19% last year with essentials like vegetable oil starting to become unaffordable. Nigeria’s public debt, $102 billion in 2022, is growing unsustainably – though one of Africa’s biggest oil producers, without refineries, the country reimports and subsidises petrol. It is unhealthily dependent on oil despite the fact that production is decreasing. Half of the largest population in Africa is under 18 and one in three jobseekers are unemployed – moreover, 40% of Nigeria’s 5–11-year-olds are not in school. With only 55% and 36% having access to electricity and the internet respectively, the next government needs to foster sustainable economic growth. However, one of the most onerous obstacles to growth and prosperity is the widespread violence and insecurity in the country. Buhari leaves a country plagued by increasing kidnappings, farmer-herder conflict, criminal and political violence, Islamist militant attacks, and a growing south-eastern separatist insurgency. If the election was rigged, let’s hope the next president is prepared to step up to the challenge.