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Home » Q&A: Aanu Adeoye on covering the long tail of Nigeria’s presidential election

Q&A: Aanu Adeoye on covering the long tail of Nigeria’s presidential election

In February, millions of Nigerians cast ballots in an election to replace Muhammadu Buhari, a former military general who has served as president for the past eight years. On the ballot, as expected, were representatives from the two major political parties: Bola Tinubu, of the incumbent All Progressives Congress party, and Atiku Abubakar, of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party. And, for the first time, there was a viable third candidate: Peter Obi, from the lesser-known Labour Party, who galvanized large swaths of the country’s younger population, a demographic that has experienced high rates of unemployment and increased violence and repression under Buhari.

Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) moved to deliver ballots electronically as a safeguard against the manipulation of votes, but in spite of such changes, Election Day saw many errors. Delayed opening times and glitches in a system that was supposed to upload results from over 177,000 polling stations rendered millions of votes susceptible to tampering. The Financial Times reported a staggeringly low turnout rate of 27 percent; two-thirds of the 87 million people who waited to collect voter registration cards reportedly did not end up casting a ballot. There were cases of violence at some polling places, and members of the press were targeted, too: according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least fourteen reporters covering the election were arrested, attacked, or harassed by the authorities or private citizens or groups. (According to Reporters Without Borders’ most recent World Press Freedom Index, which was published last week, Nigeria ranks 123rd out of 180 countries worldwide—a low score, despite the country’s diverse media landscape.)

In the end, Tinubu was declared the winner; he is scheduled to be sworn in as his country’s new leader later this month. But Abubakar and Obi are still challenging the results. This week, a court began hearing their appeals; according to the Associated Press, armed security forces blocked some journalists from entering the courthouse. Before the hearings got underway, I spoke with Aanu Adeoye, West Africa correspondent at the Financial Times, about covering the presidential election, Obi’s and Abubakar’s ongoing challenges, and the task facing Tinubu.

FM: Why was this election so important for Nigeria’s democratic development?

AA: Nigeria has had previous iterations of democracy that military men have cut short, but since 1999, there’s been this unbroken democratic rule in the country. Whatever we as citizens or journalists may think of the quality of that democratic rule, it’s important that, by and large, people choose their own leaders. We hold elections very similarly to the American system—every four years with a maximum of two terms for a president—so I think that the message going into this election was that there was an opportunity for people to vote for a new leader after eight years of the outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari. Some people, I think, were optimistic, excited, because if you look at the trajectory of the country over the past eight years, under the current president, things have not been going well, so to say. I think there was a chance for people to elect someone to put the economy on the right path and help with the insecurity that’s plaguing so many parts of the country.

Now Obi and Abubakar are challenging the validity of the results in court. What arguments are they making?

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Prior to the elections, INEC introduced a new system called BVAS [the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System] and something called the Result Viewing Portal. The idea behind this was to eliminate fraud that has typically bedeviled Nigerian elections, like people voting multiple times and stuffing ballot boxes. This new technology was going to verify who was voting based on people’s voter cards and fingerprinting. The other part of the new technology [the Result Viewing Portal] was supposed to almost instantaneously update the results from each of the 177,000 polling units across the country. That did not end up happening, for various reasons. There were massive delays in uploading the results on the part of the commission. They acknowledged that there was a “glitch” on their part. But people were not satisfied with that and felt that INEC broke with what it promised to do. That’s the backbone of a lot of the major election complaints.

No presidential election results have been overturned by the courts in this country before; governorship and other elections have been overturned by various courts, but not one for the presidency. For something this historic to happen we would expect there to be a high bar of evidence. As journalists and as citizens, we’re all waiting to see what evidence will be presented in court.

What have been the challenges in covering the ongoing story of the election? 

I think the main challenge actually came on Election Day. We started our election coverage at the FT in October: I interviewed Abubakar, who was running for president for the sixth time and was a former vice president; I did stories on the youth movement and went to a few rallies. Everything was fine. On Election Day itself, I covered the elections partly in Lagos and then in Abuja, the capital. I was in a suburb of Lagos called Surulere when some gunmen came to steal a ballot box. They came to the polling station; they shot into the air about four times. It was terrifying.

How did election coverage play out in the Nigerian media more broadly?

The Nigerian press were pretty granular in their coverage. There were a few TV channels that had rolling coverage—kind of like the John King “Magic Wall” on CNN—saying We just got results in XYZ state, with a rotating cast of analysts and experts. Because it took a few days for the results to be declared––people voted on a Saturday, and the results were not announced until the very early hours of Wednesday––the nation was on a knife edge. People were following closely, mostly glued to their TV sets.

There’s a huge young population here, so they were glued to their phones, looking at Facebook and WhatsApp. A lot of things flow from WhatsApp group chats; that’s where fake news comes alive. When there were voting delays, or when certain polling stations were attacked, it didn’t take long for those pictures to surface on social media; we could see in real time how things were happening. In the aftermath of the violence that I saw at the polling station I went to, I took a few pictures and put them up on Twitter. So social media was a huge part of the electoral process. Currently, the people who support Obi are very active on social media, using it as a way of telling people to keep the faith. And Obi himself has been very clear on social media, telling his supporters that there should be no violence and that they’re going to pursue this in the courts.

Tinubu is still scheduled to be sworn in at the end of this month. If all goes as planned, what would he need to do to begin to bridge divides between Nigeria’s various constituencies? 

He would need to put out a message of unity, and he has to mean it because the country feels very divided along religious and ethnic lines. There was a lot of pre-election rhetoric of people saying really terrible things about different ethnic groups. It’s about making sure that people who spout ethnically divisive rhetoric have no place in his government. People are facing massive challenges with the economy. Insecurity is widespread. This is the other major challenge he has to take on. He needs to make a lot of tough decisions economically.

Is there any chance that the new administration will be less repressive of the press? 

The current government banned Twitter for about seven months in 2021. There’s a few journalists behind bars right now. So there’s evidence that this incumbent party has an appetite to censor the press. And it’s not just the central federal government; governors in several states are going after local news reporters and have held them without charges. So I think we don’t have any promise that the incoming administration will change things. We can only judge them based on their actions going forward.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

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