Editorial: Nigerians voted – by not voting

Last Saturday, 15.2-million voters gave incumbent Muhammadu Buhari a second term as the democratically elected president of Nigeria. It is his third term in total: he served as head of state from 1983 to 1985 after seizing power in a military coup.

His rival, Atiku Abubakar, who received just 11.3-million votes, has rejected these results and has said he will challenge them in court.

In a country with a population of 191-million people and 84-million registered voters, Buhari can hardly claim that this result represents a ringing endorsement. In fact, the opposite is true. Voter turnout was the lowest in Nigerian history, at 36%. Turnout in the 2015 election was at 45%.

There were some mitigating factors for the Independent National Electoral Commission. Yes, voting was compromised in some northeastern areas by insecurity linked to the Boko Haram insurgency. And, yes, many voters were caught out by the last-minute decision to delay the vote by one week (it was originally scheduled for February 16 but only took place on February 23).

The latter is not much of an excuse, however, given that the electoral commission had four years to organise the election. We will never know exactly how many voters were disenfranchised by its failure to do so on time.

More broadly, however, the low turnout suggests a loss of faith in Nigeria’s political system, with voters uninspired by either of the frontrunning candidates. And who can blame them? Neither offered anything new, or any real prospect of the change that Nigeria’s ailing economy and endemically corrupt political system so desperately need.

Buhari has delivered on few of his promises from 2015 and spent much of his first term receiving medical treatment abroad for a mysterious condition. Abubakar, meanwhile, is also an old establishment figure, having served as vice-president under Olusegun Obasanjo. He is also a political opportunist who was, until he defected just over a year ago, a senior member of Buhari’s party.

In this election, Nigerians made their feelings clear — by not voting. The people have now spoken. For the sake of Africa’s largest democracy, we hope that its leaders are paying attention. Other African leaders, perhaps even those from the continent’s other economic hub, should also take note.

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