As the race for the Nigerian presidency takes shape, the fate of Nigeria itself hangs in the balance.

Will there be an election in Nigeria next year? If so, what kind of election will it be, and how will its outcome affect the country’s long term stability?

As political activity across the country heightens in the approach to party presidential primaries at the end of May, these and ancillary questions are being asked by observers who worry that the election is in danger of becoming a sideshow to more urgent issues that pertain to the very survival of Nigeria as a country.

Key among these issues are rampant insecurity, especially widespread kidnapping; random outbreaks of violence; a spike in occurrence of ritual killings; and sporadic attacks by roving bandits, the latter concentrated in but by no means restricted to the northwestern and northcentral parts of the country. Last Sunday, forty-eight people were reported killed after “dozens of gunmen on motorcycles” stormed three villages in the northwestern state of Zamfara, adding to the more than 5,000 slain across the Nigerian northwest since 2018. An estimated 915 and 571 people respectively were killed and kidnapped in the country in January 2022 alone, even as a majority among the 168 people reportedly kidnapped in March after gunmen opened fire on and stormed a Kaduna-Abuja passenger train remain in the custody of their abductors.

Shaken by the rising incidence of ritual killings across the country, the Nigerian House of Representatives in February implored the federal government to declare a national emergency.     

Across the various levels of government, there is scant evidence that authorities have a handle on the problem. The passage of legislation by the Nigerian Senate last month outlawing payment of ransom to kidnappers was greeted with condemnation by groups across civil and political society who saw it as focusing on the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. The legislation, an amendment to the 2013 Terrorism (Prevention) Act, imposes “jail terms of at least fifteen years for paying a ransom to free someone who has been kidnapped…”

The proposal may seem wrongheaded, but at least the Senate bill tacitly acknowledges the seriousness of the menace of kidnapping in a country where an average of thirteen persons are said to be abducted daily.

For its part, the federal government has been beating its chest about the purchase of attack aircrafts and other military equipment worth $1 billion from the U.S. government. Whether this translates into strategic advantage in the long term remains to be seen.   

Insecurity is only one facet of the Nigerian crisis. Its education sector, once among the region’s most robust, is in the doldrums. In February, university professors under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) declared a “comprehensive and total strike” after failing to reach a compromise with the Nigerian Federal Government on, inter alia, conditions of service and a mutually agreeable payment platform. From 1999 to 2020, ASUU was on strike for a combined 1,450 days. This week, the union extended its ongoing strike for another twelve weeks. The monthly salary of the highest paid professor in a Nigerian public university is less than one thousand dollars.

The protracted crisis in the Nigerian education sector has prompted students to seek greener pastures outside the country. More than 100,000 Nigerian students travel abroad annually; over the past decade, the number of Nigerians studying in the U.S. has gone up by 93 percent. In the last two years, the number of Nigerian students entering the United Kingdom has jumped by 415 percent.

Many Nigerians believe, not unreasonably, that the reason why the government has no stake in the preservation of the universities and has tended to respond to ASUU with a lethargy bordering on disdain is because children of the political elite and highly placed government functionaries do not go to them. In March, citing “breach of fundamental human rights,” the House of Representatives voted down a bill to stop public officers from sending their children to foreign schools without approval from the minister of education.

Good education is just one of the many reasons why more and more Nigerians are leaving the country. A staggering 73 percent of respondents to a 2021 Africa Polling Institute survey indicated they were willing to relocate with their families if the opportunity arose. According to the same survey, the proportion of Nigerians “who believe that the future of Nigeria will be better than it is presently” has decreased year on year.

The economy is a nagging concern. According to the World Bank, “in 2018, 40 percent of Nigerians (83 million people) lived below the poverty line, while another 25 percent (53 million) were vulnerable.” Although COVID-19 did not help matters, Nigeria’s economic crisis predates the pandemic, having more to do with its stubborn monoculturalism coupled with its incorrigible pursuit of unsound fiscal and monetary policies. With government borrowing—whether to cover budget deficit or service existing debt—continuing unabated, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that the country’s total public debt will rise to 44.2 percent of its GDP by 2027.

The economic crisis has had a profound impact on the psyche of civil society. Thrown back on their own resources, ordinary citizens have meshed skullduggery with dubious spirituality. The sheer gruesomeness of many ritual killings as reported in the media signals total desperation amid a frightening descent into normlessness.         

The evident fragility of the system notwithstanding, the smart money must be on the election holding as scheduled. One reason is that there is no feasible alternative to a peaceful transfer of power via the ballot box. The idea of a multiparty transitional government, mooted in some quarters in recent times, has gained no traction. Another reason is that after several electoral cycles, Nigerians have gotten used to picking their leaders. They may have come to the realization that no single election will solve all their problems, but they also know that any credible solution must emerge from within the democratic process.    

Nigeria needs a president brave enough to take on the enormous crisis of the Nigerian state, lest it torpedoes Nigerian democracy.

Andres Villar assisted with the preparation of this post.


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