March 4. 2024. 7:01

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Nigerian elections: More than 90 million voters expected to turn out for polls

Africa’s most populous country is going to the polls to elect a new president, amid ongoing security crises, widespread poverty, unemployment and huge debt.

As many as 93 million Nigerians will vote on Saturday in presidential and legislative elections. There are 18 people running for president, three of whom are considered top contenders: Bola Tinubu, a 70-year-old former governor of Lagos who represents the ruling All Progressives Congress party; Atiku Abubakar (76), a former vice-president running with the People’s Democratic Party; and businessman Peter Obi (61), who is running for the Labour Party.

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Tinubu’s campaign slogan is “It’s my turn”. Abubakar is making his sixth bid for the presidency, following five failed attempts. Obi – who has been topping recent polls and is seemingly attracting the youth vote – is a surprise third contender in a contest usually dominated by the two main parties. His supporters call themselves the “Obi-dients”.

Saturday’s vote will be the sixth election since military rule ended in 1999. The winning candidate needs a simple majority, as well as 25 per cent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. Official results are likely to take five days, but analysts expect there to be a clear indication of who Nigeria’s next president will be within two.

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Nigeria has Africa’s biggest economy and is predicted to become the third most populous country in the world by the middle of this century. But there are limited options for the country’s many young people, with unemployment said to be about 33 per cent. About 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 30.

Approximately 40 per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line, and the country has been badly affected by soaring food prices, which were already rising before the war in Ukraine started and drove up costs across much of Africa. In 2022, inflation in Nigeria reached almost 19 per cent – the highest in two decades. Public debt has topped €96 billion. Life expectancy is low, at 53, according to the World Bank.

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Outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari has been in power since 2015, serving two terms. While he was elected on promises to end domestic conflict and insecurity, they appear to have spread and worsened in various areas under his leadership. The 80 year old has also faced various health challenges during his presidency, which resulted in him leaving Nigeria for long periods for medical treatment. At one stage in 2018, he was forced to deny rumours that he had died and been replaced by a clone.

The security situation means that many Nigerians may not even get to cast a vote.

Nigeria’s northeast has been devastated by a nearly 14-year-old Islamic insurgency which has seen millions of people displaced and an unknown number killed. Reports say armed militants are threatening to kill anyone who votes in the northeastern areas that they control.

[ Nigerian refugees reduced to onlookers as election approaches ]

This is one of several crises that has forced Nigerian refugees into neighbouring countries, with more than 200,000 in neighbouring Niger. A lack of provision for a diaspora vote means none of them will cast a ballot. In January, The Irish Times visited southern Niger to interview Nigerian refugees who had fled the escalating banditry problem in Nigeria’s northwest.

“I’m not sure if the election will take place because there is so much insecurity… How can the election be valid if people cannot vote?” said Baraka Alio, who was living in a refugee camp after fleeing her home in Nigeria’s Gangara late last year, where her husband was killed by bandits.

Saturday’s election also comes after a chaotic few weeks in which a botched effort to replace banknotes in Nigeria led to riots, protests and even deaths. Cash shortages meant that some Nigerians were unable to pay for healthcare, food and other urgent needs.

[ A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò: An intimate portrait of poverty and wealth in Nigeria ]

There have been a series of attacks on electoral commission offices in the run-up to the election. On Thursday, outgoing president Buhari tweeted: “Since my assumption of office, we have worked so hard to ensure that we pass on a legacy of free, fair, credible, safe and peaceful elections.”

He said he was asking the electoral commission and security agencies to be “firm and courageous”, and said candidates at all levels must respect the voters’ choice and make any complaints through a legal process. “Let me remind all Nigerians, not for the first time, that this is the only country we have, and we must do everything to keep it safe, united and peaceful,” he said.