Beyond the Polls Was 25 February A Proxy Referendum on Nationhood?

No presidential election has ever been overturned by Nigeria’s courts, but many strongly believe that 2023 may be the exception. Beyond the winner-takes-all royal rumble that may now ensue before an electoral tribunal, there is the larger existential question that hangs over the fate of the nation.

One cannot escape the feeling that Nigeria’s 2023 presidential election was a seminal moment in the country’s history. With the media focused squarely on the electoral fortunes of former Anambra State governor, Peter Obi, who emerged as a viable third force—the first since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999—both Nigerians and the observing international community were seemingly waiting to see if Obi could pull off the sort of people-led electoral victories Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema and Kenya’s William Ruto did in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Arguably, the election came as the nation faced heightened division amongst its people. In the South East, an insurgency rages intending to actualize the long-held dream of Biafra. In the north central, Christian minorities cry of an ongoing pogrom at the hands of Fulani ethnic militias. In the South West, Yoruba nationalists call for an independent Yoruba nation. At the presidential elections, these forces came to a head as each of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups, the Hausa (and Fulani), Yoruba, and Igbo were represented by a viable candidate, with predictably reflective voting patterns.

For keen students of history, the elections may be reminiscent of the pre- and post-independence period, when the nation’s politics was little more than a tussle between the three major regions. The tussle was largely personified in power struggles between Sir Tafawa Balewa, the nation’s first and only prime minister, and the premiers of the Northern, Western and Eastern regions respectively: Sir Ahmadu Bello, Obafemi Awolowo, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became the first president. Nigeria appears to have come full circle in terms of ethno-religious politics. This ought to sound alarm bells to those who still believe in the concept of one Nigeria.

Although the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria (INEC) has now declared Bola Tinubu, the winner of the 2023 Presidential elections; the question of the nation’s future seems far from settled. Firstly, the president-elect must face off with his main rivals, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, who are currently in court challenging the process that put him there.

No presidential election has ever been overturned by Nigeria’s courts, but many who believe that 2023 may be the exception. Most prominent among these would be Obi himself, who, as governor of Anambra State was impeached but reclaimed the gubernatorial office through the court. In his tweets, Obi can be seen assuring his supporters that he will reclaim his mandate, once more, through the framework of Nigeria’s legal system.


Beyond the winner-takes-all royal rumble that may now ensue before an electoral tribunal, there is the larger existential question that hangs over the fate of the nation. Ahead of the polls, Pa Ayo Adebanjo, the national leader of the Pan Yoruba cultural and political group, Afenifere, and an ardent supporter of Peter Obi, repeatedly warned that any outcome other than an Obi victory would sound the death knell for the nation Nigeria.

In his words, ‘It is either bend or break. If Obi does not win, forget a country called Nigeria. If we lose this election, there will be no opportunity for a non-Christian, a non-northerner to be president again.

Was this mere alarmism on the part of a man with an interest in an Obi win? Or is this a prophecy destined for inevitability?

Talk of the disintegration of Nigeria has never been absent in Nigeria’s socio-politics. For example, Sir Tafawa Balewa, the leader of the Northern Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the eventual prime minister, is credited with having made the following statement, in 1948, several years before the nation’s independence:

Since 1914, the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite… Nigerian unity is only a British intention.

Such views are arguably as valid now as they were then. Nigeria, being an ethnically diverse country, has over 250 distinct languages spoken by its people and has three major ethnicities, along with several relatively large minority groups. The smallest of these three major tribes, the Igbo, who represent 18 per cent of the country’s population—approximately 36 million people—are more numerous than the next most populous country in West Africa, Ghana.

Each of these groups has distinct sets of cultural values, with several sub-cultures, dialects, and sometimes historical in-group rivalries. This only serves to further complicate matters. These ethnicities are also divided by geography: the rivers Niger and Benue between the South East and other regions, and a rich belt of rainforest between the South West and the North. This means that if not for British colonial intervention, the country currently known as Nigeria realistically had very little prospect of being formed organically.


Since Nigeria gained its independence from its British creators in 1960, the nation’s politics has been defined by sectarianism and glaring distrust between rival groups, creating a complex playing field akin to a multi-dimensional chessboard.

The key players are the major three ethnic groups and groups of minorities in-between who are generally identified by their geographical origins. For example, the ethnic groups of the old Midwest and non-Igbo parts of the South East, now broadly recognized as the South South, and in the central areas of the North, the region is identified as the Middle Belt.

Given this background, it is unsurprising that the question of secession has remained part of the Nigerian political psyche. However, the surprise is that the North made the first violent push for secession. From the Biafra war to date, northern politicians like ex-president Yakubu Gowon and Kashim Shettima, the current Vice-President-elect, have fiercely protected the idea of a united Nigeria with a strong federal centre. Ironically, it was Gowon himself who led the Northern push for secession before doing an unexpected about-turn on that position within weeks.

In the aftermath of the January 1966 coup led by Major Chukwuma ‘Kaduna’ Nzeogwu, Northerners took to the streets in violent riots, demanding secession. The rioters were protesting the perceived lopsidedness of this coup, in which the core of the revered northern military, political, and cultural leaders were disproportionately targeted. In these violent riots, the cry ‘Araba’, which translates to ‘separation’ became the central theme.

The Araba riots evolved from rioting into mutiny by the night of  29 July 1966, and within hours into a full-blown coup. Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon, as he then was, who spearheaded this coup initially pushed for the disintegration of the nation on the grounds of its lacking a basis for unity. These events led to a standoff between Igbo military officers, who regrouped in the South East under the leadership of then Lt Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, and the Nigerian military government. Following failed talks between Ojukwu and Gowon, the Republic of Biafra was declared.

Much of this history is widely known, but it is not only the three major ethnic groups who have sought to secede from the federation at various times. The first declaration of a break-away sovereign state was Isaac Adaka Boro’s Niger Delta Republic in February 1966, months before the Araba riots. This nation lasted just 12 days before capitulating to Nigeria, with Boro being reabsorbed into the Nigerian army. In 1990, Gideon Orkar also attempted a coup to separate the Middle Belt and South South from the Nigerian federation on the grounds of marginalization by Nigeria’s majority ethnic groups.

Today, irredentism lives on in the form of groups like the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra, and in Yoruba nationalists like Sunday Igboho.  Beyond these groups, there has also been an awakening among Nigeria’s youth, who have taken an unprecedented interest in politics over the past three years. This political renaissance may be said to have its origin in the ‘EndSARS’ movement of 2020, which though it eventually appeared to lose steam, appears to have birthed an age of politically aware Nigerian youths with the zeal to take on the political hegemony, and the organizational nous to do so effectively.

To these youths, nothing but an outright rejection of the current system would do and this may explain the rise of Obi as a viable third force. It is also arguable in my view, however, that Peter Obi is fuelled by another kind of supporter: These are those who believe that there is a grand plot to subjugate the Christian middle belt and south. To this group, an Obi presidency is an answer to perceived repression, and a crucial intervention in said plot.

For instance, Pa Adebanjo, previously quoted to hold the belief that this election was the last chance for Christians to participate in governance at the presidential level. Espousing similar beliefs alongside Adebanjo is prominent Christian leader, Paul Enenche of Dunamis International Gospel Centre, who canvassed votes for Obi. Enenche argued that a vote for either Tinubu or Atiku would be detrimental to the interests of Christian groups. Enenche is on the record as saying, ‘the destiny of Christians is at stake here…’

It is a fact that Nigeria is a strongly religious country; in that context, few Nigerians may find it acceptable for an adherent of either of the two major religions, Christianity and Islam, to rule for more than two consecutive terms. Such concerns are not without merit. For example, the government of General Ibrahim Babangida, surreptitiously subscribed Nigeria to the Organization of Islamic States. This was perceived as a huge affront to Christians.

In place is Nigeria’s regional rotation principle—an unspoken rule that the presidency should be rotated between the north and south after either side has held the office for two consecutive terms. It is expected that should Tinubu’s victory stand the legal test, which seems probable, then power will be expected to return to the North, and ostensibly, to a Muslim Northerner, since the North has never produced a popular Christian candidate in any presidential election.

For Christians, that presents the prospect of 24 uninterrupted years of a Muslim-led Nigeria, given Muhammadu Buhari’s two terms, which will expire by 29 May. For the South East, this proposition would mean 40 years of exclusion from the seat of power.


The 2023 elections will be the second time in Nigeria’s history that all three major ethnic groups have been represented at presidential elections. For each of these groups, the opportunity to ensure representation in the nation’s highest office lay on the table on 25 February 2023. To Igbos, the opportunity was a once-in-a-lifetime window to dress unhealed wounds. To Christians across the ethnic and geographical divides it was an opportunity to ensure a stake in the nation’s political future.

Now that Obi has lost—according to INEC—the nation is predictably tense, leading the Department of State Security to issue a warning to politicians and their followers to desist from making inflammatory remarks or proclamations. Allegations and counter allegations have been bandied as to intentions to form an interim government.  Going by comments, even from highly placed individuals, on some social media platforms, old tribal wounds appear to have been reopened just when they looked set for healing.

Where do we go from here? Nigerians have shown where their loyalty lies by predictably partisan voting patterns. Whatever specific or general reasons why we’ve voted in this way as a people, what seems clear to me is that the exclusion of any major group from the heart of the federation is an invitation to mass discontent. At a time when the nation is beset by irredentism, and the youth have grown quite restless, will Pa Adebanjo’s prophecy be fulfilled?

If, in my view, Nigeria is to stay alive, it must give adequate representation to all its people. This can only be done by taking due recognition of Nigeria’s ethnic and religious realities, and adequately restructuring the country to ensure a greater degree of State or regional autonomy, as well as by codifying the rotation of federal power among our various regions. Anything short of this may ensure that the groundswell of simmering resentment will erupt in undesirable consequences as it did in 1966

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