What I saw at the Nigerian polling booths was inspirational. Brits could learn from it – Chitra Nagarajan

Voters queue at a polling booth in Lagos, Nigeria.

At 3am this morning, the official announcement came. Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate for the opposition All Progressive Congress (APC), had gained 15.4 million votes; the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic party (PDP), had won 12.9m. Jonathan had already made a telephone call to Buhari the night before, conceding defeat.

This is a landmark moment for Nigeria. It is the first time a sitting president has conceded defeat, and will lead to the democratic handover of power for the first time in the country’s history.

I was an elections observer and spent my weekend moving between polling units in Abuja. I have been inspired by democracy more in these past four days in Nigeria than in five years in London – and it is the people, not the politicians, who have been responsible.

The atmosphere at polling stations was a joy to witness. At 47%, the turnout might seem low, but that percentage is remarkable given the country’s insecurity, the number of people unable to collect voters’ cards, and the long queues. For most people, voting was an all-day event, and for some, an all-weekend one. In the UK, turnout is 65%. Imagine what it would be if people had to wait hours or even days to vote.

People waited patiently at polling stations in Nigeria from 6am on Saturday; the polls opened at 8am. By the time officials arrived, voters had organised themselves, signing up to a list of names in order of arrival or handing out numbered slips of papers to ensure there would be no rush when accreditation started.

In every single polling unit I visited, people waited for hours without food or water. Temperatures reached 38C. It was so hot that my phone shut off, warning me that it needed to cool down before I could use it. At one unit, I spoke with women who had been waiting for nine hours, and expected to hear their complaints and frustration. Instead, they spoke about how excited they were and how fun they were finding it all: “We are exercising our civic responsibility,” they said. “We don’t get the chance to do this every day.” This joy at being part of the democratic process was something I encountered everywhere I went.

Nigerian women queue to cast their votes in the midday sun at a polling station in Daura.

At a small number of polling stations voting continued into Sunday. I spoke to some voters who, after waiting to vote from 7am to 9pm on Saturday, returned at 9am on Sunday. And many stayed at the polling units after they had voted. They were determined that their presence would stop potential rigging, saying, “I am waiting for the count because I want to see it with my own eyes.” When darkness fell, they brought their own generators or switched on car headlights. When officials counted ballots, voters gathered around and chanted the numbers alongside them. There were people who first went to vote at 7am on Saturday morning who were still there when counting finished at 11.15pm on Sunday night.

The nation was glued to the election for four full days. Attahiru Jega, the chair of the independent electoral commission, became a household name. Countless discussions were devoted to how he was bearing up under the pressure. Once results came in, people started to practice their arithmetic. They gathered in viewing centres with paper and pencil, subtracting six- or seven-figure numbers to determine the margin. In workplaces, people had one ear tuned to updates. Everyone was hooked to the drama and theatricality of it all. Who knew that watching a series of men (it was overwhelmingly men) reading out numbers could be so gripping?

The result of the Nigerian election coincides with the start of campaigning in the UK. I have always been against compulsory voting; casting your ballot is a right not an obligation. And I understand voter apathy. There are good reasons why people do not want to vote. But it’s difficult to spend two days watching people who are so excited about voting, regardless of the fact it has taken up their whole weekend, and not to start changing your views about democracy.

Every reason people in the UK might have not to vote, Nigerians also have, in spades.

Politicians are corrupt and only care about themselves? In Nigeria, an alleged $20bn of government funds have gone missing from one government agency alone.

I can’t bring myself to vote for any of them? As the Economist stated, the choice in Nigeria was between a former dictator and a failed president.

They’re all the same? Well, there is no ideological difference between the APC and PDP. In fact, given the number of defections and counter-defections, they are essentially the same group of people.

I don’t think my vote will matter? Nigeria is a country with a history of rigging elections.

Supporters of presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his victory in Kaduna.

Despite high levels of disillusionment in politics, people in Nigeria still voted. I wondered for days why this was the case, why the atmosphere felt so different to that in the UK, and then I realised. This election galvanised the country, with many becoming interested in politics for the first time, because Nigerians trusted in their power to effect change. The majority felt the president was not performing and needed to leave office to give someone else a chance to do a better job. They believed that although the candidates, the political establishment and the system were not perfect, that they, and by extension their votes, mattered.

People in the UK have lost this sense that they have the ability to change what happens among those in power. This is despite having a real political choice. Yes, there’s a rush to the centre ground in the UK, but parties do have different visions for the future of the country and concrete plans for how to get there. As voters, we need to make our opinions on this known.

In the hours following the Nigerian elections, commentators focused on what Nigeria can teach the rest of Africa about democracy – but the UK has a lot to learn too. Like Nigerians, we also have a stake in the future of our country, and the power to decide which direction it takes.


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