When the first gunshot rang out, I was frozen with shock. But in an instant and with another shot following, I scampered toward safety with hundreds of voters, as we ran toward a half-open gate that was far too small for the number trying to squeeze through. People fell and a mini-stampede ensued. A third shot was fired.
It was all over as quickly as it began. We returned to the polling station and found that the presidential ballot box was gone.
It was Saturday, February 25, and Nigerians had gone to the polls to elect a new president and members of the two houses of parliament. I was observing the election across Lagos as the Financial Times’s west Africa correspondent. It was just about 2.30pm in Surulere district when the armed, masked men stormed the polling station and took away just one of the three ballot boxes, making clear they’d come for a specific purpose.
My experience was a microcosm of an election marred by the late arrival of electoral officials at polling stations, random acts of violence and voter intimidation, and long delays in transmitting the results despite the electoral commission’s promises of near-instantaneous transmission from the polling stations. International observer groups, usually quite bland in their reports, said the election failed to meet the reasonable expectation of Nigerians.
The presidential race was close: Bola Tinubu won 8.8mn votes, Atiku Abubakar 7mn and Peter Obi 6.1mn. The results are now being challenged in the courts by the opposition due to the tardiness of the electoral commission.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy and its largest democracy, has a flair for the spectacular. It is a country where things are bigger and faster — everything happens at dizzying speeds. Its elections are dramatic and chaotic.
It looked as if this time we would get an election to remember. The establishment parties—the ruling All Progressives Congress and the main opposition People’s Democratic party—had picked two wealthy septuagenarians in Tinubu and Abubakar respectively as their candidates.
But it was the emergence of the Labor party’s Obi, himself a wealthy former governor who made for an unlikely outsider, that elevated the race into a tight contest. Nigeria’s presidential politics had been dominated for two decades by iterations of the two big parties, shutting out any viable third option.
Obi, who was a PDP member at the beginning of 2022 and ran as the party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2019, quickly gained a cult following among disaffected youths fed up with a lack of opportunities as unemployment swelled. Many educated, middle-class youths left the country.
Obi’s message of accountability and frugality with government resources and his reputation for eschewing the trappings that power brings in the country made him an unexpected hero but a surprisingly perfect match for the little-known Labor party. A rich capitalist with interests in banking and import-export became the face of a party with strong union roots. That’s Nigerian politics for you.
Obi also has the #EndSARS movement to thank. In 2020, young Nigerians across ethnic and class lines protested against a particularly brutal police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or Sars, that was famous for extorting from, harassing and even killing the young people it was meant to protect.
The #EndSARS campaign was silenced by the Nigerian military, who killed at least 12 protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos on the night of October 20 2020. Despite denials by the authorities, a government-appointed panel concluded the events of that night could be considered a “massacre”. The movement was crying out for a political voice, and in Obi it found its man.
From my conversations with politicians across all parties in the past week, Nigeria’s old guard has been taught that its young people are a constituency to be reckoned with. President-elect Tinubu said in his acceptance speech last week that he would work to make Nigeria better for its youth. Jibes about votes not being won on social media have given way to politicians using it to reach out to potential voters.
Hopefully this is not just a knee-jerk reaction to a close election but the first step towards a more mature and enlightened democracy. And if we could do it without the gunshots and casual violence, that would be much better and safer for all of us.