The stakes are not only high for the candidates running in Nigeria’s 2023 election, the world will be watching closely to see how the poll is run and who will win.
That’s because Nigeria is not just any country, but “a voice that carries international weight,” as German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock put it last year.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous country. Abuja’s influence on how the African Union positions itself on international issues, be they climate change or Russia’s war in Ukraine, is correspondingly great.
“We want to work more closely with this important partner,” Baerbock said ahead of her December 2022 trip to Nigeria.
Observers believe that whether this will happen or not, depends on how the elections go.
“It is the first time that we are holding elections in a state of general uncertainty. The territorial integrity of Nigeria is at stake,” said Nkwachukwu Orji of the University of Nigeria.
Separatists and criminal gangs in the south, bloody conflicts between farmers and herders in the center and Islamist terror in the north have plunged large parts of the country into chaos.
Rising tensions amid closely contested race
Political observers in Berlin and other European capitals fear the situation could further deteriorate. Previous elections have led to outbreaks of violence, although the security situation was better then. This election is being very closely contested because Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari must step down after serving two terms.
Three presidential hopefuls are vying to succeed him. Besides Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party — two parties that have dominated Nigeria’s politics since the 1990s — there is another strong contender: Millionaire businessman Peter Obi for the Labour Party, a particularly popular contender among young voters.
Western donors are worried that the outcome of the election might lead to violence or long disputes over the winner, weakening Nigeria’s leadership role in Africa. But it need not come to that.
“The outcome of elections in Nigeria is difficult to predict. Several times in Nigeria’s history, there have been fears of violence after an election, and nothing happened,” said Lynda Iroulo of Georgetown University in the United States. Nigeria’s then-President Goodluck Jonathan, who relinquished power peacefully after his defeat in 2015, is one example.
Western countries worry about migration
But if things go wrong this time, or if the new government fails to get Nigeria’s problems under control, there will be additional consequences for Western countries.
“Migration will be a big issue. Already a lot of people are leaving. It shows how little they trust the country to take care of its people,” researcher Orji told DW.
The uncertainty has made partners like Germany uneasy.
For a long time, Nigeria was among the 10 main countries of origin for asylum-seekers in Germany. And for just as long, Germany has pushed Nigeria to slow down irregular migration and accept the return of rejected asylum-seekers more quickly.
The issue was always central to bilateral talks between ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Buhari.
The result of the 2023 election could also have an impact on future migration cooperation.
“Peter Obi is the only one of the three candidates who has not only promised closer relations with foreign countries, but also wants to change the way Nigerians are treated in Western countries,” said Iroulo.
An Obi government could demand that Germany make it easier for Nigerian citizens to get a visa. This is something Berlin is probably not likely to willingly accept.
Nigeria an important trading partner for Germany
The German business community is looking forward to the upcoming change of power in Nigeria, regardless of who ultimately wins the race.
“All candidates in the run are more business-friendly than the current government,” said Christoph Kannengiesser of the German-African Business Association.
He saw potential for a closer cooperation. Nigeria is the second most important trading partner for German companies in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. “Nigeria is a difficult but interesting market for German companies,” Kannengiesser told DW.
Politicians and investors are especially keen to develop cooperation in renewable energies. Germany wants to become climate-neutral by 2045. To reach that goal it urgently needs green hydrogen, which Nigeria could also provide. The German government opened a liaison office in Abuja as recently as 2021.
Kannengiesser has urged Berlin to quickly invite the newly elected Nigerian leadership to Germany and just as quickly send its highest representatives to Abuja. If all remains peaceful and a credible result emerges from the vote, the German government is likely to agree.
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