A Glossary for Understanding Nigerian Elections

It has been too long since I spent time sharing my experiences on the African continent. I am just emerging from the 2019 Nigerian General Elections! In addition, what an ordeal it was. I’m sure I have mention this before but almost everything (ok, pretty much everything) in Nigeria is managed from the National level. All 36 states receive funding from the federal government. For some states, they receive as much as $47 million dollars of their allocation from federal coffers. This means Nigerian elections take on a life of their own because everyone wants to control the resources in the states.

In February and March, Nigeria conducted two separate elections. The first election was for the Presidency and members of the National Assembly (House of Representatives and Senate). Two weeks later, the country held elections for Governors and members of the State House of Assembly. Because of the level of illiteracy in the country, individuals are not listed on the party ballots. Citizens vote using party symbols. For the National level elections, individuals received three long ballots for presidency, House of Representative and Senate. Funny enough (not funny at the time), the electoral management body postponed elections six hours before the opening of polling units for the national elections. The elections were postponed for one week until the following Saturday.

Nigeria Ballot

A Senate Ballot in the Federal Capital Territory.

Elections are a do or die affair in Nigeria! The control over government resources and money makes elections so competitive that politicians hire thugs to disrupt polling units or intimidate citizens so they don’t come out to vote. This leads us to what Nigerians call, SUPPLEMENTARY ELECTIONS. Recently I traveled to Sokoto State (Northern Nigeria) for a SUPPLEMENTARY election. An election is supplementary in the fact that when the electoral management body held the gubernatorial elections on March 9, they CANCELLED some of the polling units because of violence or over voting (more ballots casted than voters accredited to vote).

(L) Women queue to vote in Sokoto Supplementary Election on March 23, 2019. (R) Elderly citizens wait their term to vote in Osun State during the gubernatorial elections in September 2018.

Many of the March 9 gubernatorial elections were declared INCONCLUSIVE by the electoral management body. The term inconclusive means, the number of CANCELLED votes are larger than the margin of victory. If you were to conduct an election of those cancelled votes (or polling units), the votes could change the results of the elections. Everything I just explained to you is exclusively Nigeria! Don’t try to understand it because as an outsider you won’t get it. Nigeria has a long history of election violence and rigging and this is a way of not allowing violence and rigging to influence the system. Other terms Nigerians like to use regarding elections and politics are

  • INTEREST (kind of like your political interest in the US but more like personal interest. Meaning, I might get money if this person is in power);
  • GODFATHER (this is the person that sponsors your political career. He or she does it to benefit himself or herself, usually financially);
  • CROSS CARPETING or DECAMPING (this means to leave one party to join another. This is very common in Nigeria. As common as changing your clothes. The election I just observed in Sokoto, the Governor was in the ruling party until August 2018 when he left to join the opposition party to run for president. After he didn’t win the nomination, he came back to the state to run for Governor), and
  • WINNING YOUR POLLING UNIT (this is like me winning my parents’ polling station in Mount Vernon. However, most time, this means using money to get people to vote for you. The money is as small as $3-5 but during the Sokoto election, I heard rumors of $50-75. That is big money for many voters. In Nigeria, Trump would be a failure because he did not win his polling unit in NYC or his state. HABA – Nigerian for “Can you Imagine”). There are a lot more but I will stop there.

Nigerian elections are very complicated and have various steps in an effort to protect the integrity of the ballot. All voters must has a permanent voter’s card with ID, use fingerprints to authenticate them at the polling unit and have their fingernail painted to show that they have voted. Once they vote, many Nigerians hang out at the polling units to ensure that local officials count votes and report votes to local collation centers. This also reflects the lack of trust that exist in Nigeria and its institutions.

This is Nigeria as they say!

Nigeria Children

Young Nigerians watching the voting process from outside the school premises in Sokoto State.

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