Nigeria: soon to be Africa’s largest democracy?

Nigeria: soon to be Africa’s largest democracy?

Previous elections in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, have been plagued by violence and election fraud. Amidst a backdrop of heightened insecurity fuelled by political tensions in the region, Saturday’s election will be decisive in defining Nigeria’s role on the global stage. They will also be fundamental in determining investor confidence and characterising Africa’s relationship with democracy.

With a growing population of 190 million, an abundance of untapped resources and a partially privatised economy, Nigeria is a treasure on the African continent for potential investors. However, widespread corruption, volatile political tensions and a history of violent elections and frauds have deterred foreign investment. These challenges have undermined the legitimacy of its democracy and its potential to integrate Africa into the global economy.

Despite pre-election violence, the last election in 2015 was welcomed as a watershed moment in history as the nation saw the first transfer of power to the opposition via the ballot. The 2019 elections are anticipated to potentially reform Nigerian democracy. It can also provide a defining model across Africa. If Nigeria succeeds in overcoming its election challenges, it will be able to provide a fresh narrative on Africa’s turbulent relationship with democracy. With foreign reserves falling to $42bn in November the outcome of the election is crucial in setting the precedent of what is to come. A peaceful and fair election is likely to see a rise in foreign investment over the short and medium term. However, a volatile election characterised by dissent will reinforce a climate of political instability. This will almost certainly affect economies across West Africa as investor confidence declines.

Sustaining the status quo or redefining it: the front-runners

The current geopolitical climate is fractious with escalating farmer tensions and growing discontent amongst the young with rising unemployment. There are further problems with endemic corruption heightened by conflict with Boko Haram militants in the North East. The primary front-runners hoping to address these challenges are the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress party, and former Vice-President, Atiku Abubakar, of the People’s Democratic Party.

The legitimacy of Nigeria’s election has been called into question with rising fears that attempts were being made to maintain the current status quo, following Buhari’s decision to suspend the Chief of Justice weeks before the vote. Earlier this week, Buhari pledged his commitment to “deliver free, fair and peaceful elections”, increasing optimism of a democratic election which redefines the current trend of electoral fraud and coercion.

A key point of Buhari’s proposals is confronting Boko Haram and providing the military with greater resources to combat insurgents. In contrast, his rival Abubakar’s policies appear more market-driven than interventionist. He favours investment incentives, the removal of the price cap on gasoline and proposals to sell the state oil company. Both propose to diversify the economy and reduce the nation’s dependency on oil.

This year’s election outcome is difficult to predict as both candidates are Hausa speakers from the North. Traditionally candidates attempt to appeal to two of the three ethnic bloc majorities for votes. Given the variables, it seems probable that the vote margin will be narrow this year.

Why the 2019 election is different: are the young holding the key for democracy in Africa?

Following the watershed election of 2015 there has been an increase this year in registered voters.  This is perhaps reflective of the renewed confidence in elections and the rise in political engagement amongst the young.

nigeria, population, youth

Population pyramid of Nigeria – year 2018. Source:


voters, registration, data, turnout, nigeria, elections

Parliamentary elections registrations and turnout serie, Nigeria. Source: International IDEA, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

Recent statistics from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have disclosed that the voter population has hit 84.27 million.

The under-35 age group account for 51% of these registered voters and has allowed for an increase since the last vote. Given this percentage, they will influence the outcome of the elections. They will likely prompt reforms on Nigerian democracy and structures too. However, endemic corruption may turn out in frauds, increasing risks of turning discontent into violence.

All these variables are dependent on voter turnout, a low voter turnout will undermine calls for democratic reform.

Risk outlook: a great market opportunity or a high-risk climate?

The 2019 election will be crucial for Nigeria’s political climate. It will determine whether it provides a great market opportunity or an increasingly high-risk climate for investors. If the pattern of election fraud and violence prevails during this election, it will have a detrimental impact on economic growth in Nigeria and the West Africa region. The election poses a high risk of political instability. With nearly a quarter of the workforce unemployed and increasing security issues surrounding Nigeria’s oil infrastructure, corruption and violence will certainly fuel simmering political tensions. In this case, there would be a decline in economic growth due to shaken investor confidence. This may ignite a negative economic spiral, at a time when the country needs direct foreign investment.

However, there is also a realistic possibility that the elections will make Nigeria an appealing investment prospect. The round of voting should follow the path established in 2015, avoiding violence or election fraud. If this scenario occurs then Nigeria would be a great market opportunity, thanks to an abundance of natural resources and reassured investor confidence. A successful democratic election would signal a gradual progression towards a more stable political climate.

About Author

Hadeeka Taj

Hadeeka Taj is a recent History graduate from the University of Southampton specialising in the British Empire in Africa. In addition to her specialism, she has covered conflict and transformation in Asia focusing on South Asia and China. Her research specialities include political risk and security in sub-Saharan Africa, British foreign policy, international and European politics. She also has an interest in geopolitical risk in MENA. Hadeeka is passionate about making a change, having been a Student Trustee and Company Director, Youth Parliament MYP, political campaigner and has chaired a range of topical debates in her role as President of the Debating Union whilst at university.