Nigeria: 2023 in Focus
The combination of an important election, transitional policies and evolving security, as well as economic, concerns, means that 2023 might be the most consequential year in Nigerian history since the return to democracy in 1999. However, the general elections will take place in Q1 of 2023, leaving nine more months of major activities and areas that will impact the country in 2023. And, regardless of the choice of president, there will still be major issues that will shape the way the year unfolds. While last year was highlighted with insecurity, emergency response and election preparedness, the year ahead will depend on how the government, and the society at large, respond to the following major thematic areas.
Muhammadu Buhari will not deliver another New Year’s message; United Nations address or Independence Day speech as Nigeria’s president. After two terms in office, Buhari will leave active politics two decades since he first sought the post. Alongside the president, 18 state governors will leave their respective positions and are anticipating a move (or return in some cases) to the Senate, or uncertainly watching where their political futures lie in a new administration. However, beyond this will come the necessary reflection and post-mortem that follows a referendum such as the election.
The parties have actively promoted policies that are expected to gain popular support. Promises to resuscitate moribund industries and improve difficult conditions have been made in different spaces, languages and forms. However, the elections are also affected by factors beyond simply which manifesto is best. The PDP and APC have nominated presidential candidates that defy conventional norms about how the country is represented in its highest office. That this is even a discussion is representative of how the current administration has taken to prebendalism and largely enthroned members of specific demographics. It is why candidates can openly use religion, ethnicity and region to seek votes in a country built along those very sensitive fault lines. A vote for any candidate will reinforce, to some level, the notion of how important it is to identify along these different aspects. Campaign rhetoric has also been irresponsible in some regards and disregards the challenge that will come with governance once the election is over.
Even getting to the other side of the polls will be a feat in itself. The importance of any civic exercise, not least of all an election, cannot be over-emphasized. Because of how different the country can be, based on the outcome of the contest, the conduct of the elections has become even more important. As we covered last year, election preparedness played an important role in the country and every single major incident – from the flooding to insecurity – was viewed on a scale of how disruptive it would be to the election. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has had to deal with extended voter registration, deployment of necessary logistics materials and the unique experience of a new electoral act. All of these have played a part in adding to an uncertain air around the polls. The expected use of technology, especially the national ‘debut’ of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) and INEC Results Viewing Portal (IReV), will play a role in providing legitimacy to the outcome of the results. That will be key to different groups accepting the result and avoiding any post-election clashes due to concerns around the results.
Nigeria’s last census was in 2006 – 17 years ago – which means that the Yar’Adua (2007 – 2010), Jonathan (2010 – 2015) and Buhari (2015 – exp. 2023) administrations have carried out fiscal and development policies on outdated data. While the current government is seeking to rectify this for the next set of leaders, there are a host of challenges that will affect the census, if it eventually holds.
For starters, it will be a very exerting demand on the budget. The Nigerian Population Commission has earmarked 532.7 billion naira for the exercise, which was not included in the 2023 budget. The significant increase on the 2006 census, which cost 283 billion naira and was still costlier than those carried out in India and China, is because it is expected to be a digital project – which will rely on geographic information systems (GIS). But there will still be physical enumerators and the expected added costs of managing such added staff to the project. With ongoing questions around the viability of the budget, such costs could be better devoted to addressing other parts of the economy.
Census counts are important for many reasons, but the most potentially disruptive is the role it plays in the composition of the Federal House of Representatives. Section 49 of the Nigerian Constitution caps the membership of the House at 360 members, which should ‘represent constituencies of nearly equal population as far as possible’. It means that the outcome of the census could result in seat re-allocations, which could mean that some representatives could be faced with the prospect of fighting the result of the census from the moment they are sworn in to avoid losing their seats. The politics of a census result is not limited to the House’s composition, but also to the impact that such numbers will have on development policies, projects and allocation of resources. Naturally, the delicate balance of population representation between the different geo-political zones will lead to concerted efforts to frustrate or ensure parity following the result of the census. This could even get more problematic if the results appear to favour either side of the established religious, ethnic or geographic divide. Furthermore, the expected litigation will no doubt affect ongoing judiciary procedures, including expected post-election tribunals, and play a further role in disrupting the country. There is no question that a regular census should be conducted, but the potential disruption of the result is a difficult situation for any new government to navigate.
However, and perhaps most importantly, the importance of the census will lie in the assumptions that we expect to be corroborated by actual data. Nigeria is growing – so much so that it is expected to be the world’s third most populous country by 2100. This population, like the rest of the continent, is expected to be predominantly young and able to contribute to a potentially resurgent economy. The challenge now, and for the next government, is ensuring that this population is able to deliver on its promise. Data shows how difficult it will be, with nearly half of Nigerians surveyed in 2019 by Pew Research Center sharing their intent to move abroad within five years – and 2023 will only be year four in that count. This phenomenon, known as the ‘japa syndrome’ – named after the Yoruba word to ‘leave or escape’ – is only growing and expected to increase as citizens don’t know what to expect. Nigerians have increasingly flocked to the UK to study, recording a 222.8% increase from 2021 levels and a nearly 700% increase from 2019. These citizens are actively seeking job opportunities to remain abroad, which only exacerbates the demand for qualified professionals in key sectors such as education, healthcare and, perhaps ironically, policy development. This situation is coupled with a rising youth unemployment rate (42.5%) and growing uncertainty around insecurity and the general direction of the country.
A major area of debate in the country has been the maintenance of the fuel subsidy in the country. It was the source of the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests, which may have played a role in the eventual defeat of the incumbent Jonathan in the 2015 elections. Over a decade later, the current administration has similarly pledged to end the costly and unsustainable subsidy program. Tellingly, none of the frontrunners for president has faulted that decision, which means that citizens will likely meet rising costs and inflation on fuel prices before the end of the year. It adds another dimension on the pressure that the next financial team will have to ensure the economy is not adversely affected by this policy. It will also be key for the next government to demonstrate a commitment to transparent governance by ensuring that the repurposed funds are well spent.
While there will be a new finance minister, national economic adviser and senior counsellors at different levels of government, the current governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) term expires in 2024. However, it remains to be seen if Godwin Emefiele will even be in post following accusations of terrorism financing by the domestic intelligence agency. Regardless of the outcome of the back and forth, the governor’s legacy is also tied to his role in an administration where he has been responsible for steering the economy through the COVID-19 pandemic, a recession and the impact of the volatile oil market on the economy. Yet, the immediate impact of the CBN’s recent policy to redesign the Naira, as well as the Bank’s limit on cash withdrawal, will play a major part in shaping the rest of the year. The policy to accelerate a ‘cashless’ society might be too fast for the current state of affairs. A significant population of Nigerians are not banked, with a 2022 article putting that percentage at 59 million Nigerians, accounting for 40% of the population. The report also estimates that 73% of that number, just over 43 million, do not even have the required documents to open a regular bank account. It means that the policy, which is reported to also be targeted at curbing vote trading during the elections, will adversely affect poorer citizens and lead to more socioeconomic concerns. The outcome could be increased crime and an increased part of the population susceptible to being converted by extremist groups.
A natural progression from the preceding points is how the expected presidential transition will lead to a change in addressing rising levels of insecurity nationwide. Roughly two months after taking office in 2015, President Buhari changed the service chiefs and stayed with his choices for five and a half years. While there is no guarantee that the next president will keep the senior defence structure in place for that long, there is a strong chance that the current set of chiefs will be similarly replaced within months of the new administration being sworn in. It also means that there will be a transition in terms of the expertise and focus that the new government might have and what that will mean for ongoing projects.
All presidents have opted to choose a chief of army staff from their part of the country, a relic from an era where coups were rife and concerns over loyalty were prevalent. Expectedly, Buhari’s choices were from the north, which followed an expected crackdown and focus on rising banditry and kidnapping in the region. While an Atiku presidency could also follow a similar approach, a Tinubu or Obi presidency might increase efforts in managing growing resource related clashes or separatist agendas in the south. The change in personnel will no doubt come with a different approach in addressing the insecurity challenge, but also a loss of experience following the expected retirements that will follow such a transition. However, individual personalities within these potential governments might also challenge some of these preconceived notions. A Tinubu presidency will see Kashim Shettima, former governor of Borno State, become vice-president, and he has previously hinted at a personal focus on addressing security if he is elected. Likewise, an Obi presidency will elevate dialogue with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to the fore – especially since agitations will be expected to recede following such an election, and a likely government will seek to ensure that is the case.
However, an important consideration when previewing 2023 is where the previous year stopped, especially in the aftermath of attacks and increased alerts from diplomatic missions in the capital. In the months since, there has not been a reduction in militia-related clashes in parts of the north central and north west, and the attack on INEC facilities in the south east. Already, the year has begun with reports of gunmen abducting more than 30 people at a railway station in Edo State. While there might be an expected change in tact and approach from a new government, and reaped dividends in reduced attacks, the nature of Nigeria’s insecurity challenge is such that a change is not likely to be radical and swift.
Nigeria’s elections will be closely watched around the world – with some analysis even describing it as the most important in the world this year. In many ways, the result of the election will be felt in many different areas. Nigerian citizens are in senior positions around the world, including the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation and the commissioner for political affairs, peace and security of the African Union Commission. It is the home of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), proposed home of the African Central Bank and is expected to be in the conversation should United Nations reforms lead to Africa getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. But there are other areas where foreign policy will be watched in the coming year.
For starters, Nigeria’s voice will be needed in a region increasingly overrun by attempted, and successful, unconstitutional transfers in power. It took only 24 days for the first coup of 2022, in Burkina Faso, and the year ended with an attempted coup in The Gambia on 20 December. In between, there were attempts in Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Sao Tome and Principe, with another successful one in Burkina Faso in September. A successful election will provide much needed relief ahead of other elections in the region later in the year, including presidential polls in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also provide the administration’s representatives with the needed authority to carry out more effective and decisive diplomacy. Finally, terrorism remains a transnational challenge, with Boko Haram being especially prevalent in the Lake Chad region. Closed borders will not necessarily solve the solution, with only concerted alliances with other neighbouring countries capable of addressing the issue.
Another major impact for foreign policy in 2023 is the increasing need for trade within the region. Two years after the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) came into effect, intra-African trade remains low. Increased regional commercial activity could provide another avenue for the necessary boost the domestic economy needs, while also establishing new markets for stunted industries to reach and grow in. In a year that the AU has tagged as the year of AfCFTA implementation, it might provide more impetus for the next government to leverage the opportunity to improve its focus on building more industries.
In a warning that might have gone under the radar in the wake of the most devastating floods in Nigeria over a decade, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has warned of worse flooding in 2023 if adequate precautions are not taken. Likewise, the impact of these floods could lead to devastating hunger, with an estimated 25 million Nigerians at risk if policies are not put in place. This echo from 2022 shows how easy it is for many of the issues that dominated that year to be repeated if there isn’t proper management. This report has also not made allowance for potential restructuring attempts and the possibility of the next national assembly managing an amendment process to increase the role of state governments. That initial conversation will definitely become louder towards the end of the year, as the new federal and state governments become empowered and begin to grapple with the challenge of governance.
Ultimately, the advantage of an exercise in previewing a year ahead is to see where potential pitfalls are placed and how they can be avoided. None of the concerns stated above are fixed in stone and cannot be navigated past. A government determined to deliver on the promise of its mandate from Nigerians will ensure that there is proper communication and commitment in tackling these issues. Similarly, and also as important, an active citizenry can also play a role in holding the state’s institutions to account and ensure that the increased civic engagement of the election period is not wasted in the years before the next election.
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development.