Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

2023’s Most Important Election Isn’t Where You Think

Why the world’s eyes will be—or should be—on Nigeria in the coming weeks.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A girl walks in front of electoral posters in support of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party at Ribadu Square, Jimeta, Adamawa State, Nigeria where the PDP is set to hold a rally, on February 14, 2019.
A girl walks in front of electoral posters in support of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party at Ribadu Square, Jimeta, Adamawa State, Nigeria where the PDP is set to hold a rally, on February 14, 2019.
A girl walks in front of electoral posters in support of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party at Ribadu Square, Jimeta, Adamawa State, Nigeria where the PDP is set to hold a rally, on February 14, 2019. LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

In 2023, the list of national elections around the world stretches so long that the countries that will hold them, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, almost flirt with covering the alphabet. None of them are major Western nations, giant economies, or geopolitical heavyweights. But even if some of them were, my choice for next year’s most important election would probably stay the same.

The vote that stands out for me—and not just for this year but perhaps for many years to come—may surprise readers because it will be held in a country that few spend much time thinking about. It is the presidential contest set for late February in Nigeria. Readers of most international news coverage have been deeply conditioned over the years not to see the affairs of the African continent as being of any transcendent importance to their lives, and most of what is sometimes called the mainstream media in the West doesn’t even have correspondents based in Nigeria.

But sticking one’s head in the sand toward Africa, especially Nigeria, has never been more mistaken. As readers of my Foreign Policy columns will know, Africa is rapidly becoming the stage of the largest demographic changes in the world, and Nigeria is the center of the action. The continent as a whole will go from 1.4 billion people to around 4 billion people by the end of the century, assuming a vastly larger portion of the human population, according to the median United Nations projections. In that time, Nigeria, a country that’s geographically 1.4 times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, will double in size demographically, far surpassing the United States and becoming the world’s third most populous country, after India and China, with about 560 million people.

In 2023, the list of national elections around the world stretches so long that the countries that will hold them, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, almost flirt with covering the alphabet. None of them are major Western nations, giant economies, or geopolitical heavyweights. But even if some of them were, my choice for next year’s most important election would probably stay the same.

The vote that stands out for me—and not just for this year but perhaps for many years to come—may surprise readers because it will be held in a country that few spend much time thinking about. It is the presidential contest set for late February in Nigeria. Readers of most international news coverage have been deeply conditioned over the years not to see the affairs of the African continent as being of any transcendent importance to their lives, and most of what is sometimes called the mainstream media in the West doesn’t even have correspondents based in Nigeria.

But sticking one’s head in the sand toward Africa, especially Nigeria, has never been more mistaken. As readers of my Foreign Policy columns will know, Africa is rapidly becoming the stage of the largest demographic changes in the world, and Nigeria is the center of the action. The continent as a whole will go from 1.4 billion people to around 4 billion people by the end of the century, assuming a vastly larger portion of the human population, according to the median United Nations projections. In that time, Nigeria, a country that’s geographically 1.4 times the size of the U.S. state of Texas, will double in size demographically, far surpassing the United States and becoming the world’s third most populous country, after India and China, with about 560 million people.

Numbers like these are so big as to be incomprehensible and even mentally paralyzing for some. When I began to focus on these prospective demographic changes more than a decade ago, scholars at academic conferences I spoke at often scoffed, saying Africa’s population numbers had to be ridiculously off target and were possibly even meaningless. Since that time though, these trends have largely been reconfirmed.

Many people are now finally moving past the stage of incredulity. Which brings us to the question of Nigerian democracy: Can it finally begin delivering for its people? Paradoxically, the best place to look for an answer is the recent past of another demographic giant, though one that has never been a democracy: China.

By the time of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, Chinese leaders had become seized with the danger of their country’s runaway population. Some warned that even if they were able to lift economic growth rates substantially, these still risked being outpaced by population growth, meaning that on a per capita basis, people would still be getting constantly poorer. Some even predicted that hundreds of millions of new peasants could soon “wash away the cities,” in the words of Communist official Song Jian.

This undeclared state of emergency, both political and intellectual, drove Chinese responses of extraordinary historical importance, with both strongly positive consequences and others that the country is struggling with now and will continue to for decades.

Although some in the Chinese Communist Party focused on stringent population control measures, relatively young reformers around former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, led by his premier, Zhao Ziyang, argued that China’s then-booming youth population represented an untold opportunity for the country, one that history would never forgive the leadership for failing to seize. By leveraging its large pool of functionally educated, working-aged people, China could position itself as a cheap workplace and source of labor for the already industrialized world. “Time and tide wait for no one, opportunity knocks but once,” Zhao declared.

Zhao’s advocacy and vision, forged in intense internal debate, helped convince the West that technology transfers to China were in its interest and led China into a new era where so-called special economic zones were built around the country, starting on the outskirts of Hong Kong at Shenzhen. The rest, necessarily simplifying a bit, is history. China’s commitment to this course, including continuous investment in human resources through education, has led to the situation today, where that country is by far the world’s biggest manufacturing power and, because of that, the top trading partner of most of the world.

One can’t move on before addressing the complicated downside of Chinese decisions made in this era. Beijing’s concerns over population growth, which even predate this time, were appropriate. The policy response, however, deserves more mixed reviews and may even come to be judged as a once-in-a-century scale error. As first documented by anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh, China followed the demographic advice of a rocket scientist named Song Jian in pursuing ever-more stringent policies aimed at achieving zero population growth in the form of a one-child policy that included intrusive birth planning and forced abortions on an enormous scale. Readers can find plenty of my writing on the consequences of this approach elsewhere. The short of it though is that because of distortions to what is called population structure—the fine balance between people of different ages, imposed through its draconian zero growth strategy—China now faces a crisis of aging and demographic decline on a scale that has never been seen before. This will weigh heavily on the country’s prosperity and power for the remainder of this century.

What is most remarkable about Nigeria and its democracy is their contrast to China in facing transformational changes already underway. China, a one-party state, reaped the supposed benefit offered by authoritarianism of being able to take quick and decisive action to manage its huge population and both the opportunity and threat it posed. Unfortunately, it also reaped one of the most pernicious downsides of authoritarianism: a catastrophic, self-imposed solution arrived at by the irresistible lure of unopposed top-down power.

What do we see in Nigeria’s ongoing presidential campaign about its future with regard to domestic demographics or almost any other major issue? Unfortunately, the country’s democracy continues to perform dismally. During a recent visit there, I saw almost no serious debate about how to leverage the country’s so-called demographic dividend, the current soaring ratio of young, work-seeking young people compared to dependents at the two extremes of the human lifespan, infants and the retired and infirm. A putative advantage of democracies is that they promote the generation of good ideas through debate. But in Nigeria, ominously, there was no one talking about opportunity knocking but once.

Opinion polls are not thought of as very reliable in the country, but the main argument made by candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu—a wealthy former governor of Lagos who has long aspired to the presidency and whom many see as the favorite to win—appears to be saying, “It’s my time.” The slogan that supporters attach to the other insider candidate, another veteran politician and former vice president named Atiku Abubakar, is that he has “paid his dues.” That leaves an insurgent with seemingly deep support in some quarters, including the youth and among intellectuals, but of unknown strength overall: Peter Obi.

Obi has called for the two other candidates—who are both from large, well-established political parties—to engage in debate with him but with limited success. Abubakar joined him on the stage once, but Tinubu never has. That in itself reflects a possible disaster in the making. Nigeria’s world-affecting challenges go well beyond demography. For years now, the country, which earlier in my career was the leading peacekeeper throughout the region, has been unable to establish security in broad swaths of its own territory, especially in the northwestern and northeastern regions where Islamist insurgents have waged terrorism campaigns, kidnapped hundreds of children, and rendered long-distance travel increasingly perilous. Even on this most fundamental question, the candidates have not articulated any detailed vision of how to dramatically improve things.

Just as in China after Mao, the educational needs of huge numbers of young Nigerian people are not being met. Economically too, the country has coasted for far too long on a recipe of diminishing returns that involves dividing up revenues from oil exports in opaque and corrupt ways, stretching them ever thinner. Nigeria is a rare African country with a large domestic market, but the path out of poverty offered by manufacturing toward higher value-added processes and greater technological mastery remains mostly blocked.

During my recent stay in Nigeria, one intellectual after another told Foreign Policy that the strategies of the two political insider candidates, Tinubu and Abubakar, both of whom sit atop huge party machines, center on vote-buying. This has been an election tradition in Nigeria for many years. But how could it still work, I wondered, given that no Nigerian government in memory has articulated a program that would even place the country on a significantly improved trajectory in theory, never mind in practice? The answer one of them gave me was revelatory. “Most of the people who are getting handouts have never had 10,000 naira [or $22] in their lives at one time. For them, that’s a big deal.”

This week, Olusegun Obasanjo, a two-time former president who continues to be a major figure on the Nigerian political landscape, spoke out to endorse Obi and denounce the “it’s my turn” and “I’ve paid my dues” approaches of the two big party candidates in the race. “The vigour, energy, agility, dynamism and outreach that the job of leadership of Nigeria requires at the very top may not be provided as a septuagenarian or older. I know that from personal experience,” he wrote. “Youth of Nigeria, your time has come, and it is now and please grasp it. If not now, it will be never.”

There are no spring chickens in the race to lead one of the world’s youngest nations. With Tinubu, who is 70, the putative front-runner, the average age of the three main candidates is 69 years old, with Obi the youngest at age 61. If you add into that calculation the age of outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, that average rises to nearly 72 years old. At the very beginning of my career, I covered Buhari during his first time in power as a military dictator between 1983 and 1985. Because of this experience and my time covering the military rule of former Nigerian President Sani Abacha in the mid-1990s, I can attest that dictatorship has, if anything, served Nigeria even worse than democracy.

Obi may or may not be the solution to Nigeria’s problems, but the interests of Nigeria’s youth are at some point going to have to be served. If the country cannot sustain generative discussion about advancing national interests and providing better opportunities for its young, then it can expect to soon encounter acute crises more severe than anything Nigeria has otherwise recently experienced.

And this is the world’s affair much more than one would sense from reading the morning newspapers. Nigeria is large enough to change the fortunes of the entire region through its own success or failure. Its breakdown, whether by slow motion or sudden collapse, could sink every regional neighbor. The number of people it might shed, whether as highly trained emigrants or desperate refugees, is enough to tilt the balance for countries in Europe or even North America in terms of labor markets and immigration crises. Nigeria’s election, in other words, is a global event—even if the world scarcely knows it.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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