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Nigeria’s Democratic Malaise: Why the New President Will Need to Strengthen the State

Nigeria’s next leader could even be a third-party candidate, Peter Obi, who has run a surprisingly competitive campaign against the nominees from the country’s two major political parties.

Foreign Affairs Magazine


Campaign season in Lagos, Nigeria



By Amaka Anku

Over the past two decades, Nigeria’s democracy has grown much more competitive. Elections have become more transparent and less susceptible to elite manipulation. The press is as free as it has ever been. And President Muhammadu Buhari is about to step down after his second four-year term and make way for the winner of this week’s election, a move that will make him the second consecutive president to complete a peaceful transfer of power.

Nigeria’s next leader could even be a third-party candidate, Peter Obi, who has run a surprisingly competitive campaign against the nominees from the country’s two major political parties. But at the same time that Nigeria’s political system has gotten freer and fairer, Nigerians have grown more dissatisfied with it. According to a March 2022 survey by the pan-African polling firm Afrobarometer, just 21 percent of Nigerians were satisfied with “the way democracy works.”

That is dramatically lower than in 2000, soon after Nigeria’s transition to democracy, when 84 percent of Nigerians professed satisfaction. And although support for democracy is still strong—70 percent of Nigerians say that they believe democracy is the best form of government—that support has eroded more than ten percentage points over the past two decades.

For many years, pro-democracy activists interpreted strong support for democracy to mean that Nigerians wanted additional procedural improvements to politics and governance—greater individual freedoms, more transparent elections, more competition in politics.

Increasingly, however, proponents of democracy acknowledge that what Nigerians (like voters across much of Africa and the developing world) want is more jobs, better roads, personal safety, and stable electricity. The Nigerian state has largely failed to meet these needs, not always despite its democratic progress but sometimes because of it. Some of the very things that made the country’s political system freer and more competitive since the end of military rule in 1999—such as limits on military and bureaucratic power—have also undercut its ability to provide for its citizens and keep them safe.

That is not to say that Nigerians and their foreign partners should not strive for a freer and fairer political system, but they shouldn’t confuse a state that lacks the capacity to limit citizens’ rights with a capable one that refrains from doing so. Regardless of who wins the election on February 25, Nigeria will face a crisis of public faith in democracy.

With crime on the rise, the economy in recession, and unemployment at a record high, Nigeria’s next president will have to do more than hold free and fair elections and step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated term. He will have to dramatically strengthen the state, even if that means exerting more control over the economy and society.


For the last two and a half decades, Nigerian civil society groups and their Western partners have successfully advocated for greater government transparency, freer and more inclusive elections, and wider public participation in the electoral process. Elections in particular have received special attention from the West. The U.S. and British governments frequently issue statements urging peaceful, free, and transparent elections.

Ahead of this week’s vote, for example, the United States announced visa restrictions on “individuals involved in undermining the democratic process.”In part owing to such advocacy, Nigeria has made much progress toward improving electoral processes and deepening government transparency.

The federal government routinely publishes its budget proposal and budget implementation reports, and a freedom of information law requires government agencies to turn over non-classified information within seven days. Electoral reforms enacted by former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration in 2011 introduced biometric voting cards that made it harder for political parties to pad their vote counts—setting the stage for Jonathan’s defeat in the 2015 elections. And a 2022 law requiring results from each polling station to be immediately uploaded onto a publicly available server has raised hopes that this week’s election will be the most transparent in its history.

But the rights-focused approach to democratic consolidation has meant that far less attention has been paid over the last two decades to mobilizing revenue, creating an effective bureaucracy, and encouraging a strong exchange of ideas between government and civil society. In fact, efforts to strengthen political accountability have sometimes undermined the state’s ability to deliver public goods and protect citizens from violence. The state provides little or no public services, and Nigerians pay little or no taxes. When Nigeria transitioned to multiparty elections in 1999, its state had been hollowed out by nearly three decades of military rule.

Understandably, the post-1999 administration immediately sought to limit the power of the armed forces. The country’s new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, retired the entire leadership of the armed forces in one day. This public chastening did not precipitate the military’s decline; it was already suffering from low morale after consecutive military coups had politicized the force.

But the transition to civilian rule made it difficult for the armed forces to regain the initiative; the military is chronically underfunded, poorly trained and equipped, and regularly implicated in arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. Citing these human rights violations, the U.S. government refused to sell Nigeria advanced weapons between 2014 and 2022, impeding its ability to combat Boko Haram, the terrorist group menacing the country’s north, and reinforcing public doubts about the government’s ability to ensure security.

Today, the clearest illustration of the tension between political accountability and a strong state is Nigeria’s inability to collect taxes. Following decades of unaccountable military rule, Nigerian civil society groups have—not unreasonably—resisted efforts to raise taxes, arguing that the government must demonstrate that it can provide public goods before it earns the right to tax society.

Unable to make a compelling case for taxation without the revenue base to provide sufficient services, Nigerian politicians have simply avoided the issue, leading to an implicit agreement between the Nigerian state and society: the state provides little or no public services, and Nigerians pay little or no taxes.

Nigeria collects a mere five percent of its GDP in taxes, one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world and well under the average for African countries (16 percent) or that of the most industrialized nations (33 percent). Before 2014, when oil prices crashed from a high of about $100 per barrel, revenues from oil royalties and joint ventures helped to keep the government running. But even with oil at over $100 per barrel in 2013, Nigeria collected less than 12 percent of GDP in total oil and non-oil revenue. With so little income, it is no surprise that the state cannot protect Nigerians from criminals and terrorists.

Police stations are often so poorly funded that victims must pay officers to travel to crime scenes or investigate offenses. Last year, armed groups are estimated to have killed more than 10,000 people and abducted at least 5,000 in incidents occurring in over 550 of the country’s 774 local government areas. In most cases, the perpetrators were never arrested. Even when suspects are caught, underfunded prosecutors are often ill prepared to litigate the cases, resulting in repeated adjournments.

At the end of last year, more than 70 percent of people imprisoned in Nigeria were awaiting trial, and many had been doing so for up to 15 years. This situation exacerbates the perception—among victims and suspects alike—that justice will never be served. It also encourages citizens to seek redress outside the judicial system, fueling a vicious cycle of violence.

But despite the obvious weakness of the state’s army, judiciary, and civil service, civil society groups still disproportionately focus on limiting the government’s influence rather than supporting its ability to implement effective policy. It is more fashionable to criticize the government’s actions than to offer alternative policy options. Yet effective policy implementation often requires cooperation between government bureaucrats and civil society groups.

In the most industrialized nations, nongovernmental groups such as think tanks channel knowledge between scholars, policymakers, and citizens. They catalyze change by raising awareness of important issues and proposing innovative solutions. Many of these institutions, although privately owned or operated, are funded by governments and cooperate closely with policymakers.

But Nigeria has few such institutions, in part owing to the government’s budgetary constraints. And because of the deep-seated suspicion of the government among members of Nigerian civil society, organizations seen as supporting the government risk losing credibility.


This week’s election—Nigeria’s seventh since its transition to democracy—could be an inflection point. The three main presidential candidates—Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, and Obi of the Labour Party—are all promising to take steps toward strengthening the state. All three have pledged to strengthen the security forces, improve Nigeria’s infrastructure stock, and grow federal revenue. The contest is closer than any since 1999.

Whoever wins must deliver on these promises and more. He must fire underperforming civil servants and replace them with more qualified and better-paid ones. He must convince Nigerians—in part by being vigilant about how public funds are used—that paying taxes will help the government deliver better services. He must create a better-funded, better-trained police service that will protect Nigerians from violence.

Some of these actions could cost the new president in the next election. But, after 24 years of uninterrupted democratic progress, Nigerians need evidence that a democratic system can truly lead to prosperity. Competitive elections without inclusive growth will only deepen dissatisfaction with democracy, a dangerous prospect as Nigeria’s population doubles over the next two decades.To avoid this outcome, Nigeria’s civil society groups must pay more attention to supporting the development of a competent state that can deliver on voters’ demands for better services. Nongovernmental organizations that support policy implementation should not be stigmatized for being “pro-government.”

And it is in the government’s interest to support a more professional media that will not only seek to hold public officials accountable but also educate voters on critical policy tradeoffs, political constraints, and governance achievements.For Nigeria’s international partners, supporting the development of an effective bureaucracy is understandably much harder than ensuring that elections occur every four years.

Building state capacity is ultimately something that only Nigerians can do; American taxpayers are in a poor position to effectively monitor the outcomes of foreign assistance programs in Nigeria, for example. But the issues that the United States and other countries signal their commitment to—whether through spending or official statements—do matter.

Nigeria’s international partners must direct more funding to and say more about the things that Nigerian voters have repeatedly rated as top concerns: personal safety, jobs, electricity, and infrastructure. Failure to do so risks rolling back the democratic gains of the last two decades.


AMAKA ANKU is Africa Practice Head and a Director at the Eurasia Group.

Foreign Affairs

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