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Is the UK Really A ‘Force For Good’ In Nigeria?

By Ayo Adedoyin, CEO, PSJUK


This week the UK Government published it’s refreshed update of the ‘Integrated Review’ – a key policy peg outlining its core measures of both national security and overseas strategy. Within such, the UK’s approach to development, diplomacy, and defence are coordinated in a symbiotic and presumably more impactful way. 

The ‘Integrated Review’ rightly reiterated and reaffirmed many pre-existing trends shaping the geopolitical arena, but it also went on to recognise the importance of new, internationally significant events like the war in Ukraine. Yet, what the review failed to even identify was the very real threat posed to democracy in Africa. Our very system of government, one which the UK previously sought to support and nourish – a system we presumed to uphold and defend across the globe. 

Nigeria hosted the world’s first major elections of 2023. Heading to the polls, the Nigerian electorate were hopeful, buoyed by renewed optimism and driven by a desire to make an active change for the betterment of society. After financial and technical support from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) – Nigeria’s election umpire – promised the nation’s best elections yet. 

These assurances further boosted optimism, especially to Nigeria’s youthful population, who helped to surge the electoral register from roughly 83 to 93 million people. The Sahelian giant now boasted Africa’s largest certified electorate. Sadly, such promise was not matched with adequate administration and oversight. The Presidential and National Assembly elections on the 25th of February were awash with an avalanche of irregularities, undermining the credibility of Nigeria’s democracy. 

Even more concerning is that both the UK Government and the British High Commission seem oblivious to this threat by going on record to make congratulatory statements, which not only provide an unproven sense of legitimacy to the announced President-elect, Bola Tinubu, but further destabilises Nigeria’s democracy if the courts do not rule in his favour. 

At a time when Russia is expanding its influence in Africa via the Wagner Group, China is formulating ‘debt traps’, and terrorism is on the rise with various ISIS affiliates establishing new homes in the region, the UK could be committing an own-goal by aligning itself with what appears to be a corrupt class of old-style politicians in Nigeria. Britain should support the Nigerian state to carry out due process and encourage them to uphold the will of the electorate. 

While the European Union (EU) expressed concerns over failures of technology, security, and communication throughout the first round of polling, in Lagos, the Deputy High Commissioner, Ben Llewellyn-Jones, applauded the elections despite their obvious shortcomings. The outgoing British High Commissioner, Catriona Laing, reportedly concurs with this position, stating that Nigerians should be proud of proceedings. Violence may not have been as severe as previous years, although would the UK Electoral Commission have declared Boris Johnson the winner of the 2019 General Election amidst widespread reports of voter intimidation and suppression, ballot-snatching, logistical and technological challenges, alongside seemingly doctored result sheets? 


Nigerian 2023 Elections: Can We Trust The Process?


It is almost as though the British position is to acknowledge the inadequacies but accept them on the basis that they still signify a successful election for Nigeria’s standard of civilisation and backwardness. This is exactly what I take the utmost issue with. The idea that the intellectual and politically-engaged people of Nigeria should accept a sub-standard form of democracy epitomises inequality, while re-establishing racial hierarchies we thought were left in the past. 

Open-ended remarks from the Minister of Africa, Andrew Mitchell, “…encouraging opposition parties to raise concerns via the courts” is simply not good enough. At least £2m of taxpayers’ money has been provided to INEC since 2019 – surely this was to prevent the exact technological and logistical failures we witnessed at the end of February and this should attract accountability. Still, I am glad to see the faith of the UK Government is firmly placed within Nigeria’s judicial system – though, I do hope they have not toned down their standards of accountability, transparency, and justice to what they consider acceptable for a ‘developing country’. 

What has happened to the UK’s Soft Power influence for good? 

Nigeria is a fellow Commonwealth nation and long-term partner of the UK with strong diplomatic, defence and trade ties, yet, despite a robust pre-election statement from the UK Foreign Secretary and the British High Commission being an accredited observer of the electoral process, it is very disappointing that the UK is not doing more to condemn the election irregularities and ensure democracy prevails. Many other international observers reported that the process did not meet the minimum requirements of transparency in such an important and consequential election. 

Last week, I spent time on the ground in Nigeria speaking first-hand to voters, various party agents, and those who were too afraid to cast their ballot. Throughout my stay, I was also able to observe electioneering activities in the runup to the Gubernatorial and State Assembly elections. In Lagos State, for instance, the scale of intimidation, the open bribery of those in poverty selling their vote for rations of essential food items, and the failure of the sitting governor to assure citizens of their safety and condemn the proliferation of ethnic bigotry all point to the undermining of Nigeria’s democracy.

If democracy is to be maintained, it is essential for the concerns of significant swathes of the Nigerian electorate to be heard and properly addressed – it is because of their commitment to the democratic process that outbreaks of civil unrest have been prevented and political demonstrations have taken place peacefully. Yet, the situation remains fragile and requires an adequate response from the international community, particularly the UK. 

The UK has a lot to be ashamed of in the role it played throughout Nigeria’s creation and past, much of which has been largely forgiven and overlooked, though I suspect that our current failure to champion true democracy will haunt our island nation in the not so foreseeable future. 

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