Checking voter lists in Makoko, Lagos
Checking voter lists in Makoko, Lagos.

LAGOS, Nigeria–Election day dawned cloudy and cool in Lagos; an odd tranquility filtered through my window. I heard birds, and the wind, rather than the normal honking and hawking—the ambient sounds that permeate the air here, fueling what seems to be endemic insomnia among its residents. The silence was particularly notable after the clamor of the preceding days. Each day the city felt edgier, lines at the gas stations grew longer, grocery stores more crowded, and meetings were scheduled back to back, to seal deals before the election.

Nigeria’s election anxiety is rooted in past traumas from decades of military rule and a bumpy transition to democracy. The 1993 election was cancelled midway through the results announcement, a degradation of democracy that people still reference regularly. During candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s military rule in the eighties, Umaru Dikko, a former minister of transport in exile in London was kidnapped, drugged and packed into a crate addressed to the Nigerian Ministry of External Affairs in a cinematic attempt at extradition. Senators passed a bill in February guaranteeing the Senate President a full salary for life, labeling it a pension. These are among myriad episodes my flabbergasted friends recount at dinner parties, part of the omnipresent analytical discourse here.

Since the transition to civilian rule in 1999, elections have been largely farcical, rife with violence, vote buying, and corruption. Eight hundred people died in the aftermath of the last presidential election in 2011, and since 1999 the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has dominated the national political scene in de facto one-party rule.

There were grumbles and controversies leading up to the March election, from difficulties voters faced getting their permanent voter cards, to debates over the legality of new electronic card readers, and campaigns that often degenerated into personal insults rather than policy discussions. But there was also a growing sense that this election could actually be different. The opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) was closely tied with the incumbent PDP in the polls. For the first time there was the possibility of a real contest rather than a continuation of PDP party dominance.

Two days before the vote, over drinks, five friends each made different and distinct forecasts—really no one knew what would happen, and that unpredictability was new, exciting, but also unsettling. One anticipated that President Goodluck Jonathan would rig the election and win, another thought that Buhari would win but lengthy suits and contestations would follow, while one optimistically predicted a clean victory by Buhari.

“Lagos is a flashpoint,” warned Christopher Fomunyoh, the Senior Associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute (and ICWA board member) who was monitoring the elections. Troops were deployed across the country the week before the vote. Soldiers are not permitted near polling units, but they were sent to maintain order on the roads. With the historic meddling of the military in government affairs, people feared the worst.

From my room, I heard soldiers marching down the street, chanting in the mornings. It unnerved me, but my driver, Muyi told me this was normal, “they do that sometimes” he said, the second morning they marched by.

“It’s normal, but when shots start ringing everyone is stupefied,” one friend said when I told him about the soldiers.

Police at a polling station in Makoko, Lagos.

Flashpoints, shots, corruption, fraud. These were the words that rang around me before and during the elections. I came to Nigeria to try to understand what is behind the clichés, the simplistic and extreme stories told about the country, and yet many Nigerians seemed to be speaking, anticipating and describing the same outlandish truths as the increasingly alarmist analysis published internationally; two days after the largely peaceful vote a military analytics website predicted civil war.

In the weeks leading up to the election, I repeatedly stopped by the office of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), trying to get accredited to cover the vote. The courtyard grew progressively more heavily guarded. By the eve of the election, the entire street was shut down, barricaded and guarded with soldiers; a tank was parked next to a fruit vendor.

To gain accreditation to observe the election, INEC insisted on a copy of the passport, a formal letter of introduction, and two passport photos. Yet the announcement of these requirements came just two days before the deadline. So I rushed across town, from a voter’s voices event in Lekki, filling out the application on my lap in the back of a sweaty cab.

I arrived just before the office closed, feeling the high of the frenzy, racing toward the election, triumphantly depositing my accreditation request. Two days later, INEC postponed the poll by six weeks. Everything got quieter. The campaign flags along the third mainland bridge grew progressively greyer with smog and soot. My contacts in the opposition seemed to lose their way for a couple of weeks, “we’re not campaigning now, they’re out of money,” a local party leader in Makoko told me, his former bombast deflated.

I befriended Nike, an assistant in the INEC public relations office. Her default expression was stern, but it hid a shy smile and she reluctantly gave me her number. In the weeks between the scheduled and postponed election dates, I called and stopped by repeatedly until finally she told me on Thursday before the election that they would begin accreditation on Friday at 1 p.m.—a mere 18 hours before the vote was scheduled to start.

I was incredulous. She explained, “it’s because of fraud, if we give out the accreditation earlier anyone can just copy it.”

On Friday the compound was buzzing, shipping crates of papers littered the cement. It was starting to look like an election, this massive logistical jigsaw puzzle clicking into place. There were just under 80 million registered voters in Nigeria, and 150,000 polling units. In Lagos alone there were 8,462 polling units, each of which required workers, supplies, and the new electronic card reader. The Electoral Commission wrote a $600 million budget to carry out the feat.

Inside, I walked past the 20-odd men loitering outside the press office. Nike nodded at me, gave me another form to fill out and handed me a large white trash bag. Inside were two neon yellow vests, with MEDIA emblazoned on the back, and two stickers to place on a car. There were none of the normal accreditation trappings—no card, no photo, no badge.

The Third Mainland Bridge devoid of traffic.

The next morning I donned the iridescent outfit, which was my pass to roll through the dreamy, empty streets of Lagos. Vehicular traffic was restricted, the only people permitted to drive were media and observers. Lagos’ streets are notoriously chaotic; traffic is a constant conversation and excuse. The roads here are much too small for the mass of cars that normally squeeze through roundabouts and treat two lane roads as major highways. The empty roads, therefore, were surreal. Kids played soccer, cyclists took long rides, a 40-year-old art director told me he was sashaying and dancing down the streets of Ikoyi.

The only disruption to the tranquility was the soldiers. At nearly every round-about and every junction there were roadblocks. Some were plastic barricades in orange and white. Some were desks and chairs stacked and arranged. Some were piles of tires. Each was manned by soldiers, some friendly, saluting when they saw my INEC vest. Some were aggressive and rude, waving their guns around, or flicking their switches against the car.

I drove up and down through town, traversing in minutes distances that normally take hours. Along the roadways little clusters of people indicated where there was a polling station.

Residents of Otodo Gbamé walk to their polling station.

In a slum community called Otodo Gbamé, denizens were skittish ahead of the vote. Months before, they had placed a formal request with the electoral commission for a new polling station to be added inside their informal sandy streets and plank houses. They hoped to avoid voting where they historically had, a neighborhood adjacent to the slum, built around the Elegushi royal family compound. In September, there was a violent attack on their community, 500 houses burned, and witnesses in Otodo Gbamé said they saw one of the Elegushi family members leading the attack. They have been embroiled in court battles ever since and hoped to vote apart from the tensions. But their request was denied, so, anxious about their safety, they gathered together in the morning to walk en masse to the polling unit.

“We are moving together for protection. Because some certain things happened here last year, that’s why we have to go together. The federal government has promised security with the army, with the police,” Celestin Ahisu told me. He said they didn’t have arms, “we are just trusting the federal government, but we don’t trust them too much, that’s why we’re going in a group. It’s easier to repel in a group.”

The crowd gathered at the local party base of the incumbent PDP. A lawyer from the party arrived, speaking to the group, then the crew began to traverse the sandy slum toward the polling unit. Suddenly a dozen teenagers started brawling ahead of us, tussling and shouting. They banged into a shack, knocking down a board that swung creakily from a nail.

“What are they fighting about?” I asked.

“Money,” Sulaymon, the photojournalist I brought along and Emmanuel, a local community activist said in unison.

“What money?” I asked.

“From the PDP lawyer,” Emmanuel said.

He said the PDP lawyer had given a 100,000 Naira gift (US$500), rice and a cow to the community leaders the day before.

There was much talk of vote buying ahead of and during the elections. Abiola Oyemi, a community activist in Badia, another slum, tried to show me how the party leaders were watching the people vote to pay them after. “Do you see the hand signals?” she asked, pointing to the men hanging over the edge of a wall behind the polling station, craning their necks to see where voters placed their fingerprints.

“The way they do it is you take the money after you voted, so you have to put in place a system where the secrecy of ballot is not maintained, it can entail putting the poll watcher in a position where they can see how you voted. They see it, they nod, then you go and get your 500 naira,” Fomunyoh, the NDI observer said.

Fomunyoh said this year vote buying was less prevalent than in years past, due to the card readers, which he said “gave the sense of more ownership, a psychological part of empowering the voters.” In the past, though, he said that system of watching people vote and paying after was common.

Many people I spoke to parroted that people are voting independently. Even Oyemi had the same line, “everything is fine, people are voting how they choose,” she told me. Only later when she and Sulaymon were wisecracking about the widespread rigging in their neighborhoods did I convince her to show me the hand signals.

Spectators peer closely as a voter casts her ballot in Badia East, Lagos.

The voters from Otodo Gbamé skirted the fight, and walked on through the burnt out clearing, the remnants of the demolition, then through construction sites littered with piles of concrete blocks, then past mansions and into the compound of the Elegushi family. The slum dwellers lined up facing against the royal building, garish and white with gold accents, a panoramic standoff mirroring the conflict that had been afflicting the community.

Voters check for their names on lists pasted on the wall behind a polling station in Elegushi, Lagos.

There were polling units up and down the street. Registration was supposed to start at 8 a.m., but at 10:30 the INEC officials were just arriving in vans crammed with materials and National Youth Service Corps members, university graduates serving an obligatory year of community service. In caps and t-shirts they looked like overgrown boy scouts.

In one of the units, orderly queues stretched into the compound. Lookman Elegushi stood at the front disbursing hand sanitizer and overseeing the unpacking of ballots and ballot boxes. He was not wearing an official outfit, but he had an authoritative air.

“Police like coming here, we make their job easy for them,” Elegushi said, describing his self-claimed observer role. “We make sure there’s security every time,”

“We make sure the police is here, and no touts. In other places there are touts. But us, every time we hear shouting on the main road we shut the gate and tell everyone to go inside.”

“We are able to identify people who might cause problems,” he said. “If you see someone not looking decent, looking crooked, we go and ask ‘where is your card?’ If they can’t vote here, we tell them to go.”

Like the people from Otodo Gbamé who organized themselves for their own protection, nodding to the government but admitting a lack of trust, and the royal community informally policing the polling stations, all around the elections were layers of authority. The complex choreography of getting 56 million people to vote overlaid just as many smaller universes, smaller conflicts intertwined with the broader competition. The stories these people told about the election were about local nuances as much as the national contest.

The election was all encompassing, both for those who participated and for those who did not. In the days ahead, well-to-do friends had called to make sure I was set for the election “Do you have your DSTV all set up? Extra fuel for the generator?” They assumed I, like them, would be cloistered away for the day. Only 29 percent of registered voters turned up in Lagos, 1.7 million out of this city of nearly 20 million. But voting or not, nearly everyone I spoke to had something to say about the election, divergent analyses, fears and frustrations.

“Write a Good Report!”

Voters and poll workers crowd around a broken card reader in Ajah, Lagos.

In Ajah, a suburb on the Lekki peninsula, marshy land that has been sand filled and covered with uninspired mcmansions and stucco blocks of flats, the competing narratives came to a head.

While Lagos is dusty, Lekki is decidedly sandy, a few stray granules stick to the bottom of my feet when I enter homes here. On one such patch of sand, between a green concrete building and a multistoried, half-constructed behemoth, four polling units were set up, the area buzzing. At three of the polling units, would-be voters were queued, but the fourth was a nebulous cacophony of frustration.

A tall, docile man smiled at me from one of the queues, he said he had just arrived five minutes before, but left his house an hour earlier. His polling station had been moved that morning, and so he had to walk four kilometers along a sandy road. “A lot of people are there,” he said, “disenfranchised.”

A shorter, rotund man brimming with boisterous extroversion interrupted us, “write a good report!” he dictated.

“What should I say?” I asked.

“That it’s a peaceful, well organized election in Nigeria, with no problems,” he said.

He told me he was from Bayelsa, the home state of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, and I said “aha, PDP?”

“Yes,” he whispered, conspiratorially. Technically people were not supposed to talk about whom they were voting for on Election Day. “Shhh, I’m voting for continuation,” he said.

Then a woman jutted in; “I’ve been here from before nine o’clock but they say they can’t find my card, what is this? I have my voting card, everything here, we are being frustrated in this country!” Her voice grew shriller as she shouted.

A smaller man, round faced and visibly perturbed, named Benga said “this is the largest unit in the place, and this card reader hasn’t accredited up to six people in all this time. People have been here a long time a lot of them it reads their cards but not their finger prints. We don’t really know what is happening.”

“Bayelsa” interrupted, shouting, “its propaganda! Everything is going fine, it will be a fine election and Nigeria will continue. I don’t want change-oh.”

Then a man with the tell-tale purple mark on his finger says “it’s not propaganda, I did mine in thirty seconds, my wife did hers in less than thirty seconds, I’m not saying you aren’t telling the truth, I’m saying it’s not a blanket statement.”

I was fascinated by the active conflict over the narrative of the election. Of course each person had their own experience, but the argument was over how that should translate into the broader story of the election. Was it a chaotic mess or a peaceful, free and fair election? Rather than waiting to see, these voters hoped to define it, through me, an obviously outside observer.

“This is Nigeria, this is corruption country!”



Polling stations in Makoko, Lagos

In Makoko, a famous waterfront slum, one of the polling units was the picture of tranquility; women in sparkly hats and Ankara jumpsuits were sitting against a building, cramming into a foot of shade, braiding each other’s hair, snapping selfies and chatting. They said they were waiting to vote, even though it was three in the afternoon and voting was meant to commence at 1 p.m.

But when I came back an hour later the scene was chaotic, Segun Sinowu, a voter was standing behind the plastic table that served as the polling unit, bellowing and accusing the workers of corruption.

“They took all our names! This is Nigeria, this is corruption country!” he shouted. “They registered our names, put them down, then they’ll say we already voted when we didn’t vote, they will go, put the thumb prints for all of it!”

Police in riot gear drove up, wearing helmets and vests, toting rifles, and tried to calm people and order them into a queue. One police officer called in to report the problems—that the card reader was not working, that there were missing electoral materials.

International media harped on the “card reader issues,” on Election Day, relishing the titillating anecdote of Incumbent President Jonathan’s foible—his card reader wasn’t working either. Ahead of the elections there were widespread debates on the legality of the new electronic card readers, the Nigerian constitution does not permit electronic voting, but the card readers were used solely for accreditation, for signing people in to the polling unit they were assigned to. On Election Day some card readers were not working, like the one in Ajah, and the one in Makoko. Some people could scan their card, but when they placed their finger on the pad for biometric confirmation a bright red exclamation point popped up with an error message. Initially INEC said that polling units with card reader challenges would need to vote the following day, but midway through the day they amended their stance, saying people could register manually in places with card reader challenges.

Olumara, a petite, curvaceous woman in a little black dress and sandals arrived. Her flat-ironed hair was pulled back into a messy ponytail. As the technical support point person for the Lagos Mainland, she was clearly frazzled. She said she had been running all over town fixing the technical errors, “weren’t you people in training?” she asked, frustrated.

The card readers had been programmed to only work on Election Day from 8 a.m., “if someone stole it, then it wouldn’t work until today and only at the polling unit,” she explained. “If you take it down the road you will see when you try to do the fingerprint it will give an error message ‘wrong PU,’” She explained. The date on the card reader in Makoko was incorrect, so it was not working. INEC refused to share the administrative password with the polling unit workers so she came to change the date on the card reader.

This small technological glitch fed into the expectations of fraud. Even after she reprogrammed the card reader, and the voters began moving slowly through the line, Sinowu said, “you see! We are a corrupt country, if we didn’t do this [make a scene] we wouldn’t vote!”

Olumara’s role was meant to be simply administrative, but the whole set up was disorganized, so she hurriedly tried to arrange a makeshift voting station. The white voting booth was missing, so they arranged a table and placed the three ballot boxes on top—one translucent with green accents for the house of representatives, one with a red lid for the presidential ballots and a black one for the senatorial. The ballots themselves had matching accents in green, red and black. But the boxes have no labels, so one of the local poll workers lifted them over her head one by one and ran down the line shouting “this one is for presidential!!”

Olumara pastes a makeshift sign on the presidential ballot box
Olumara pastes a makeshift sign on the presidential ballot box.

Olumara, meanwhile was tearing tape with her teeth to attach hand written signs onto the boxes, one was scrawled “Presidencial.” But when the first voter came forward, an elderly woman in traditional wear, she stared at the boxes in confusion, starting to place her black ballot in the green box. Sulaymon, the photographer I was working with and one of the riot police both jumped in to advise her. “no no no green in green!” They shouted.

Olumara, between aggressively stamping the date on the ballots, sighed, “In this area, old people are many.”

“Power!” “Change!”

A crowd observes the vote tally at a polling station in Makoko, Lagos.

The card readers were used only to verify voters, not to collect their votes. The actual votes were paper ballots, color-coded and printed with the party insignias: a broom for APC, an umbrella for PDP, and 12 other party decals. People marked their choice with a thumbprint, then placed the ballots in the matching ballot boxes. The card readers kept a tally of how many people voted, making ballot stuffing and vote inflation more difficult.

So at the end of the day as the sun set and the last vote was cast, the INEC workers methodically separated then counted the votes at each polling unit. In Makoko a crowd of about 100 people, including kids and teenagers too young to vote, stood around watching as one by one the ballots were lifted into the air and divided into two boxes for APC and PDP (the smattering of votes for the other, smaller parties were left to the end, then tallied. There were no more than two for any other party).

The onlookers responded to each ballot, APC supporters shouting “Change!” after each, PDP supporters shouting “Power!” Then the ballots were counted, backed by a rhythmic chorus among the observers, the excitement building to a climax and exploding into a dance party as PDP was declared a winner in the neighborhood. The victory dance in Makoko, was mostly symbolic. The poll workers noted the total, gathered their belongings and headed to regional tallying units to add the couple hundred votes to the 1.7 million placed across the city.

At one of the tabulation centers, a secondary school on Victoria Island, NYSC volunteers trooped in with their papers, their ballots, their green INEC duffle bags. They sprawled across desks in the classrooms, signing in, reviewing their totals, and collecting a number to turn in their return sheets. Ballot boxes were stacked everywhere, vests crumpled on the floor, the lights flashed off and the darkness was immediately replaced with pointillistic cell phone lights.

The tabulation is the part of the process that is still most malleable and open to manipulation. The ballots were transferred from the polling unit to the regional level to the Local Government level, to the state level and then, finally to the central level where they were compiled, state by state and tallied by INEC.

Fomunyoh called the collation process a “relic of the past” something put in place to grant the states more autonomy, but that “creates opportunities and entry points for people to tinker with the results. By the time you go to ward level, the state level there’s no guarantee that the paper trail will be authentic.”

As such, the results took three days to filter up and come in. It was three days when the country stood on edge, when the droning listing of numbers on television, party by party, state by state became a must-see TV drama.

It was also three days in which new slang was added to Nigerian argot. “Keep your Jega” means “keep your cool” after Attahiru Jega, the professorial head of INEC sat tranquil as a Zen master during a flamboyant disruption from Peter Godsday Orubebe, a PDP representative and former minister of the Niger Delta. On the last day of the announcements, when it was becoming clear the APC was pulling ahead, Orubebe took the microphone and accused Jega of ignoring a petition PDP had filed. He shouted and sat on the stage, calling Jega “partial”, “tribalistic” and yelling “you cannot continue! You cannot continue! You cannot!!”

Five states in the South South zone—one of Nigeria’s six geopolitical regions—including Delta state, Orubebe’s birthplace, were the ones where old-fashioned vote rigging seemed to take place in this election. The Transition Monitoring Group, a civil society election monitoring organization dispatched 4,000 observers to compile an independent “Quick Count” to verify the official electoral results. In most of the country the TMG turnout closely matched the official INEC numbers, but in the South South, reported turnout was 55.9 percent, while the Quick Count estimated 40.6 percent. “Official turnout in South South was likely inflated during the collation process by at least 10.8 percent” TMG wrote in a report. The 55.9 percent turnout was also notably higher than turnout in the rest of the country, which ranged from 33 to 49 percent. The South South is the heart of Jonathan’s support base; it includes his home state, Bayelsa.

“Old habits die hard,” Fomunyoh said of the outburst, nodding to the not baseless narrative of Nigeria’s boisterous, messy political sphere.

Jega listened to the tirade then responded cool as a cucumber, reclaiming the narrative by punching holes in each of Orubebe’s arguments. No, he was not being partial, he said, the PDP petition had not been correctly filed. “Let us be careful about what we say and do, and let us not disrupt a process that has ended peacefully and should conclude in a few hours,” he said, “You are a former minister of the state, you should be careful about your public conduct.”

Jega’s comportment inspired romantic analyses on twitter. One woman tweeted “Jega’s type of patience is required in relationships & marriages.” Another wrote “If your marriage is going through storms, receive the patience of Jega in Jesus’ name.”

One man advised men to go home and hold their wives, because if not they would be swooning over Jega. “Man of the year!” People cried.

This kind of hyperbolic swooning was for decorum, for normalcy, for a technocrat who followed the process, the slow, lengthy, languid process by the letter. That is the inspiration of this election. This election that was in fact almost boring, if not for the tension, the fears and the stakes.

Even before INEC announced the final results in the wee morning hours, President Jonathan called Buhari to congratulate him and concede, a first for Nigeria. It was the country’s first successful and peaceful democratic transfer of power.

“You have no idea what we’ve been through” my friend Ebun told me in between endless tri-lingual phone calls, switching from English to Pidgin, to Yoruba after Buhari’s victory. “My aunties are calling! The guy who installed that air conditioner is calling! The guy with a sewing machine down the street is calling me!” she told me, “everyone is so happy.”

By the end of the process, the stories about corruption and disenfranchisement were being superseded by new narratives about Nigeria and Africa more broadly. National and international press lauded Nigeria’s demonstrated “political maturity.” Fomunyoh analyzed, “It’s historic, it’s big. This is the first time in the history of this country they’ve had an election and everyone agreed on the outcome…Can you imagine what message this sends to the rest of the continent?”

“If Nigeria can do it,” Fomunyoh said, “then everyone else should be able to do it.”