Democracy at a Critical Junction in Nigeria
by Colonel (Retired) Wes Martin
June 1, 2023

Since February’s election, the opposition in Africa’s largest democracy has been attempting to overturn the result of its presidential election. This has pretty much become the standard for every losing party since Nigeria’s return to multiparty politics from military rule in 1999.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, elected in February, is simultaneously facing accusations of forging university diplomas previously submitted to the electoral commission and stealing the identity of a female student at Chicago State University (CSU). In theory, both could disqualify him from his position. British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) disinformation team has confirmed there is no evidence for either claim.

Fortunately, instead of stirring up party supporters to the point of physically attacking each other in the streets, both parties are working to resolve the allegations through the judicial system. The airing and adjudicating of evidence will help reinforce Nigeria’s democratic system. An unbiased court making a decision based solely upon evidence, with both parties agreeing to support that decision, is critical to national stability and security.

Spreading disinformation over a president’s legitimacy does the opposite. In West Africa, this is dangerous. Men in fatigues have been relieving civilian rulers of their duties. This summer, Niger became the latest in the sub-region to suffer a military coup, joining Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Siphoning legitimacy from democratic leaders can only help clear the path for such seizures. If citizens believe their civilian president has illegitimately snatched power, then succession need not come through constitutional means. Were this to happen in Nigeria, with an economy larger than the rest of the sub-region combined, the ramifications would be devastating.

Leading the Nigerian forgery claims is six-time Presidential hopeful, 76-year-old Atiku Abubakar. As if full circle, the Quest-for-Truth has taken his team back to the U.S., where Abubakar was banned from entering for over a decade on corruption charges.

The document at the heart of the education dispute is Tinubu’s Chicago State University diploma submitted to the electoral commission. The president of the university who signed the certificate arrived almost two decades after Tinubu graduated. The explanation is simple. The diploma had been reissued and re-signed in the 1990s, after Tinubu had lost the original during his flight into political exile from military rule.

Abubakar’s lawyers have been subjecting CSU to lawsuits to force the divulgence of information about Tinubu’s academic record. Despite the university confirming in a US federal court that Tinubu graduated in 1979, Abubakar’s lawyers secured a further court order for the university to release documents. These again reaffirmed CSU’s position.

Yet social media is awash with forgery claims, using the same documents out of context or selectively to prove the plot. No matter that they had been classified as disinformation by the BBC. As Jonathan Swift once wrote: “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after.”

Consistency seldom finds a place among conspiracy theories. It becomes a case of splattering information to see what sticks. Abubakar’s lawyer has now raised the allegation that the “Bola A Tinubu” named on the graduation certificate is in fact a woman whose identity President Tinubu stole in the 1970s.

This undermining of a smooth transition of power is concerning considering the rise in support for military rule on the continent. Across 36 countries, 53% of Africans would endorse military government if elected officials abuse their power or hold their positions illegitimately. The preference of democracy over any other form of government has declined from 75% in 2012 to 66%. These trends will only continue if disinformation is allowed to undermine constitutional democracies.

The citizens of Nigeria have an opportunity to show the world how to properly use the branches of its government to adjudicate allegations and differences of opinions. The collapse of Nigeria’s democracy may well return the country to the same military rule that President Tinubu has dedicated and risked his life in opposing.

©2024 Wes Martin