While there is no indisputably powerful black nation on the global stage today, there is a country striving to become one. Nigeria has the economic potential to become a major world player, and is also projected to become the third-largest nation before 2050, by which point Africans will represent a quarter of humanity. Here in Britain, the reality of this demographic transformation has not quite registered yet. Discussions about the next century of geopolitics focus on regions with dwindling birth rates — Europe, North America and China — even though our future will increasingly be African.
As the most populous black state, Nigeria’s prospects are crucial to the future of global race dynamics, a reality often forgotten in the exasperatingly parochial race debate here in the Anglosphere. Black people worldwide yearn for a black nation that can compete with Western powers — a yearning embodied by the make-believe state of Wakanda in the enormously popular Black Panther movies. So, as Nigerians head to the polls tomorrow to choose their president in a highly unpredictable election, it is worth remembering that the result will have implications far beyond West Africa.
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Contrary to expectations at the beginning of the campaign, the poll is now a three-way contest between two establishment figures and a popular third contender promising to upturn the status quo. Eight months ago, the odds-on favourite was the candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Bola Tinubu. A 70-year-old long-time politician, Tinubu is widely considered to be one of Nigeria’s chief “godfathers” — very wealthy political actors who engage in industrial-scale vote-buying, paying poor citizens cash to support their candidates. Tinubu openly brags about how many politicians owe him their positions, including current president Muhammadu Buhari.
His critics cite his corruption, increasingly visible ill-health, and numerous campaign gaffes as reasons he is unfit for the job. Tinubu once suggested the Nigerian army should recruit “50 million youths” to tackle the country’s staggering 33% unemployment rate (arguing that the policy would not be costly because they could be fed on locally-grown corn). In one attempt to laud the achievements of a governor from his party, he described him as having “turned a rotten situation to a bad one”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Tinubu did not agree to live one-on-one media interviews during the campaign and refused to attend presidential debates. At an event at Chatham House, here in the UK, he instructed colleagues to answer audience questions directed at him. His hands have been observed shaking in public and speculation is rife he may be suffering from Parkinson’s, a suggestion his campaign team stoutly refutes. They insist the gaffes are mere slips of the tongue, and tout his record of overseeing significant growth of Lagos’s economy during his 1999-2007 stint as governor, as proof that he is the can-do leader the nation needs.
The other establishment candidate is Atiku Abubakar, a 76-year-old former vice-president running on the platform of the opposition, the People’s Democratic Party. Atiku is likewise wealthy, considered corrupt, and part of the old guard in Nigerian politics. He is even more economically liberal than Tinubu and vows to privatise many state-held assets if elected. “In every great nation in this world, you find out that it is the private sector that is driving the economy, they provide the jobs, they provide the prosperity, and they do everything,” he stated in a 2022 interview. He admires Margaret Thatcher.
Though there are often a dozen or more candidates, Nigerian presidential elections are virtually always a de facto two-horse race between establishment candidates. Nigerian voters are therefore usually faced with weighing up the “lesser evil”. Many Nigerians are dissatisfied with this status quo, but don’t see it changing. But during this latest campaign, sometime in the second half of last year, a third contender started setting Nigerian social media alight, provoking excitement among voters seeking a new order.
The insurgent candidate is the 61-year-old Peter Obi who, while a former state governor and thus no newbie to politics, is running on the platform of the hitherto marginal Labour Party. Once a banker and entrepreneur, Obi is wealthy, very pro-business and sees economic development as Nigeria’s chief priority. One of his main campaign slogans was “From Consumption to Production”, highlighting the need for the nation to boost its manufacturing prowess, as Asia’s leading economies have in recent decades.
However, while all three frontrunners are on the same page in terms of what Nigeria needs most — economic growth and job creation — what sets Obi apart is that he is not considered corrupt. His attitudes are evidently very different from the average Nigerian politician’s. For one, he shuns the ostentatious displays of wealth and Big Man behaviour commonly associated with the nation’s elites. Videos of him carrying his own luggage at airports excite Nigerian voters tired of arrogant politicians who consider such things beneath them, travelling with entourages of briefcase-carriers and yes-men to limit their contact with the public.
A people used to politicians striving to be as inaccessible and aloof as possible have been pleasantly surprised by a candidate who doesn’t place himself on a pedestal. Obi is known to shun patronage politics — his party has explicitly stated that it will not pay people to vote for him — which makes his promises to manage public finances prudently and honestly sound credible. His down-to-earth persona also lends an air of sincerity to his vows to make Nigeria a fairer and more meritocratic society. In the end, pretty much all politicians say the same thing — that they want to improve our lives. What matters is who we believe means it. Obi has been very successful in convincing young voters that he is genuine — which, given that 60% of Nigerians are under-25, has given him an edge.
But this is not a simple old versus young scenario. It is, at heart, a contest between those who believe Nigeria can be transformed into a fairer, more inclusive society, and those who consider such beliefs naïvely unrealistic. The fruits of economic growth, and the country’s natural resources, have long been gobbled up by the nation’s tiny but overbearing elite, while the vast majority remain ruinously poor. There are hardly any Nigerians who would not like to see the kind of fairer society Obi promises — the question is whether they believe it is possible.
Persuading people that it is constitutes no small task in an extremely low-trust society. Just 7% of Nigerians believe “most people can be trusted”, while 93% believe “you must be very careful” in dealing with people. (In comparison, 67% of Brits believe most people can be trusted.) These low trust levels help Nigeria’s corrupt political class. Since the popular assumption is that pretty much everyone will help themselves to the till once in power, many conclude that you may as well stick with the devils you know, or at least those from your own ethnic group. There are those who like Obi’s message (and even him as a candidate) but doubt he would be able to reform Nigeria or even get elected, despite all the social media attention and the spate of voter surveys that have shown him in the lead.
One major issue sceptics raise is that Obi is from the Igbo ethnic group concentrated in the south-east of Nigeria; they say group-level antipathies between Igbos and northern Nigerians mean the latter would never vote for him in significant numbers — a problem, considering a slight majority of the country’s 93 million registered voters live in the North. His supporters counter that adults under the age of 35, who now constitute 40% of all registered voters, are far less ethnocentric than older generations, and will turn out for Obi in large numbers.
The undyingly aspirational nature of Nigerianness means that many simply refuse to give up on the idea of the nation becoming a great one. So Obi might be the right man at the right time: an overwhelming 89% of Nigerians currently believe the country is headed “in the wrong direction”. Additionally, 79% of Nigerians think the Buhari government has done a poor job when it comes to security — which now ranks at the top of Nigerian concerns, just ahead of the economy. As a result, trust in the ruling APC party is at an all-time low of 26%. The main opposition party, PDP — which governed the country from 1999 to 2015 — is likewise quite unpopular, and is seen as essentially a carbon copy of the current ruling party. Many want fundamental change from outside of the establishment.
The mood is not helped by the ongoing cash crisis. In October 2022, Nigeria’s central bank announced that redesigned naira notes would be introduced, and the existing ones phased out. The professed aim was to tackle counterfeiting and inflation, but some saw the move as designed to scupper the plans of politicians hoarding cash to buy votes in this year’s various elections. More than a few welcomed the idea, at first.
However, since the new notes were introduced, many Nigerians have been unable to get them from ATMs; the central bank appears to be struggling to print enough to meet demand. Meanwhile, many businesses no longer accept the old notes. In an economy where 40% of the population don’t have bank accounts and conduct their everyday transactions in cash, this leaves many unable to pay for basic goods, including food — which has sparked riots across the country.
The stakes in tomorrow’s election are high, then. A win for Tinubu or Atiku would mean business-as-usual for the next four years. Economic growth might pick up from the currently sluggish 3% rate: either candidate’s pro-business policies would be an improvement on President Buhari’s statist inclinations. But the elite-dominated, nepotistic and corrupt status quo would hold, hampering the creative potential of Nigeria’s growing population.
A win for Obi, on the other hand, would be the Nigerian equivalent of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, a feat considered impossible at the start of the campaign for reasons including the candidate’s ethnic origins. It would open a new chapter in Nigerian politics, encouraging the belief that the nation can be organised into a well-run, economically successful and fair society. A successful Nigeria would be the pride and power of not only Africa but of blackness as a whole; it would also provide a backyard role model for other African nations hoping to clean up their politics. A real-life Wakanda for the 21st century and beyond.
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