Dan, another of my data-collecting colleagues, was in Nigeria earlier this year – just before the elections. On the day that the country’s new president is being inaugurated Dan reflects on his own experiences of election fever there. Regards, Mark.
We’d been driving for less than two minutes from Abuja International Airport when the first poster reared up into view on the right hand side of the road. ‘This is President Jonathan!’ said my taxi driver. A few minutes later along the same road, another poster, another beaming face, ‘and this is his rival, Buhari!’ A few minutes later, the road forked, and both posters once again came into view. A country at a crossroads indeed.
I visited Nigeria in early February this year on a data collection trip and found a country in the grip of election fever. The trip took in three cities in all: Abuja, Port Harcourt and Lagos. The capital, Abuja, constructed just thirty years ago, provided a good introduction to urban life in the country as a whole. Coming into the centre, the National Mosque and National Church both make themselves immediately obvious, representing the religious make-up of Africa’s most populated country. Government buildings and high quality housing dominate in many areas, with only the fringes of the city giving a small glimpse into the poverty-divide that also characterises the country.
Port Harcourt was a place with a different edge to it (as wanderingmark, also experienced on his own trip there a couple of years ago); a lot poorer and a lot more populated. It was also quickly recognisable as a Goodluck Jonathan stronghold, with his campaign dominating the streets. There were pro-Goodluck marches in the centre, full of noise and colour. On the day I was leaving he was due to give a key speech in the city. Hours before he arrived the airport road was already lined with people stretching three miles back at least. Once I got to the airport it took four passport checks, each from heavily armed men, to get even remotely near the departure terminal. The words ‘major’ and ‘operation’ sprung to mind. They said that this was the most expensive African election ever, and at times it was clear to see why.
Lagos was the final stop of the trip and was probably the most colourful and diverse. A true mega city, it is a heaving mass of vehicles and people, with traffic stretching for miles and miles. Such is the congestion that hawkers walk down the lines of traffic selling everything from fish to cosmetics. In fact you could just about do your weekly shop sitting in a traffic jam! Again, Mark provides an excellent portrayal of Lagos in another earlier post. Election-wise I also detected diversity within the city, with as many ‘vote with what you know’ as there were ‘vote for change’ posters. As I asked directions at my hotel one morning, discussing how best to avoid the congestion, the receptionist laughed and said to me, ‘Mr Kelly, just pick your direction and stick with it!’ Savvy city advice, or more election metaphor…?
One of the nicest aspects of being there during election time was that conversation became even easier to strike up in a country already full of friendly, chatty people. It meant extra exposure to a wide range of opinions and insight into the current state of affairs. Certain phrases would begin to recur, ranging from hopes of change, to fears of post-election violence (as there was in 2011) and, worst case scenario, the prospect of civil war. One phrase which came up consistently during my visit, though, was ‘we deserve better.’ There was an underlying feeling from people that regardless of who was elected, failures that had occurred in the past, should not be allowed to happen again.
I was also lucky enough to spend some time with expats there whose own experiences echoed the sense I was getting from the Nigerians I had spoken to. The result of the election was genuinely in the balance. In fact, whether there would even be an election at all was still unknown. Interestingly, most people were sure of one thing, that there would be a backlash whichever side won. Supporters of both parties were claiming that an opposition victory would not be accepted, re-counts would be called, violence was inevitable, and that, once again, the democratic process would be called into question.
As it turned out the election was one of the most successful in Nigerian history. Large numbers of voters were registered, vote rigging counter measures were in place, polling staff were trained and, most importantly, when the final result came out, President Jonathan conceded. There were inevitable bouts of violence in parts of the country, but in general it had been considerably more peaceful than anticipated.
It was hard not to leave Nigeria in February with a sense of uncertainty. Having followed events over the last few months however, the Nigeria of May has a different complexion, and the inauguration of newly elected President Buhari, this will mark a new phase in the country’s history.
There is a well-known saying summing up the scale and influence of the country: ‘when Nigeria sneezes, all of Africa catches a cold’. Whilst there is still a long way to go domestically for Nigeria, it will be interesting to see how the short term progress it has made can be sustained, and then further still, how it might translate across the continent.
Dan is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.