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Climate, Poverty, Democracy: What is at Stake in Nigeria’s 2023 Election?

This blog was originally posted on NewSecurityBeat, a blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center. 

On February 25, Nigeria will hold its presidential election. The stakes of this ballot could not be any higher — especially for the climate. Climate change is an existential and current reality in Nigeria, and the coming decade will be crucial to meet the nation's sustainable development goals. It will take political will to make climate justice a reality, and Nigerians now have the opportunity to choose leaders who will either make or mar the action to address this threat. The activity surrounding the elections here in Nigeria is intense. Presidential aspirants travel from one state to another, seeking to visit all 36 states in the country. The media coverage is intense, from local reports to broadcasts with in-depth analysis such as AIT's Democracy Now program. People might not even turn on a channel that's not covering the election because everyone wants to be informed — and to get clarity on whom and what they are voting for. Voters see political packages in the online advertisements of more than 15 political parties. There is print media coverage, as well as posters in different corners of the town. And social media is not left out. People want to amplify their own preferences and say why their candidate is the best. Climate change poses one of the greatest existential threats to the planet and its people, especially in Africa. World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in September 2022 that "climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement, and stress on water resources." It is hard to get a handle on what Nigeria's candidates want to do about climate change. There are so many beautiful manifestos, but fulfilling those words is a difficult thing to do. The three leading political parties have not put climate issues high on their agenda. They only talk about it when questions on the environment or climate change come up. But climate change is an urgent issue, and this tendency to merely talk about it instead of taking the real actions that it deserves bothers me the most. This is why many advocates — including myself — are campaigning for climate action to be at the center of it all. Because there is no climate action without finding the political will to take it. All countries will be hit hard but unevenly as climate change is expected to affect low-income countries like mine disproportionately. So the entire world is watching what Nigeria will do on February 25. Will the people of my country choose a better course despite the challenges posed to the voting process itself by the climate crisis there?

Climate and the Voting Process

Nigeria's election will have a significant impact on our democracy. But climate change is distorting its electoral process. Indeed, its dangerous impacts stimulate and amplify varied factors that seek to destroy the elemental basis of elections: voting. The broad impacts of the climate crisis on the voters who comprise Nigeria's electorate are apparent. Rising food insecurity and water stress increasingly lead to mass migration and conflicts — and especially clashes between farmers and herders. And as we see so clearly in the Lake Chad region, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts threaten lives in these frontline communities, driving people from their homes and jeopardizing food security. This growing trend of populations in conflict and in motion poses an immense issue throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. A report published last year by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation observed that up to 85.7 million people — equivalent to 4.2 percent of the continent's population — migrate or are displaced. This devastating impact is further compounded by hunger. The report also noted that climate change is forecasted to push an additional 78 million people into chronic hunger by 2050 and that over half of these people are in sub-Saharan Africa. Human displacement and hunger are not the only distortions to voting patterns in Nigeria and other regions experiencing extreme climate impacts. Climate-induced floods also change voting patterns. The flooding problem is widespread here. Last year, about two-thirds of Nigeria was flooded. Out of Nigeria's 36 states, 33 were affected by the unprecedented catastrophe that claimed the lives of about 630 people, displaced 1.5 million people, affected 2.5 million people, and swept away an estimated half a million farmlands. There is also evidence of flooding's direct impact on voting. During the last election in 2019, for instance, environmental and climatic changes caused flooding that submerged one-third of the communities in Anambra, Bayelsa, and Kogi states. Pervasive flooding destabilizes livelihoods, creating hunger, migration, food insecurity, and violence. It also affects the electoral process itself, especially if effective actions are not taken to curb the climate crisis. Recent studies have identified Nigerian communities where polling places were made inaccessible and closed as a result of violence and floods. And the offices of Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also have been affected in some towns and communities by heavy floods. The challenges that extreme flooding poses to individual voters are significant. Floods have damaged some citizens' Permanent Voter's Cards (PVCs), which are required to vote in Nigeria. This damage may compel them to wait for the next election. Many of these victims also now reside in an internally displaced person's camp — away from the homes where they are registered as eligible voters. Many of them also have lost access to their voter's card and other identification necessary to obtain one. And, furthermore, there is the basic difficulty in distributing the PVCs to people in affected flooded and conflict affected areas.

Poverty as a Political Weapon

Voting in Nigeria is affected by climate change. But the poverty that climate emergencies create is also a powerful distortion of the electoral process. A report from National Bureau of Statistics estimated that 133 million Nigerians are multidimensionally poor — a figure that means 63 percent of Nigerians are affected by economic shocks. Climate change is a pervasive factor in how these shocks are created and ripple through the country. Unless urgent steps are taken, these broad and damaging impacts may catalyze resurgence of poverty and decelerate progress across the nation' sustainable development goals (SDGs). Yet there is an even more immediate threat to democracy posed by climate-created poverty. One of the most damaging factors in Nigerian elections is vote-buying. Pervasive poverty is one reason that vote-buying is so influential, and why it hinders voters' ability to choose freely. The socioeconomic distress of a broad part of the electorate has sharpened Nigeria's political culture of "stomach infrastructure." For instance, during Nigeria's 2007 elections, the most common amount of money offered to voters was approximately $2, which is a very small amount of money. This makes the poorest voters — who are most affected by climate change — the target of politicians who want to maximize their chances of election victory. The danger of vote buying is that it makes Nigerian democracy fragile and distorts the possibility of holding a credible election. In a country where food insecurity, droughts, flood, and heatwaves happen simultaneously and with greater frequency than ever before, the poverty of ordinary Nigerians is a political weapon used against the people by the political class to gain power.

Change Requires Political Will

Unfortunately, these problems are not found in Nigeria alone. Most of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. Many of these same nations also have leadership and governance deficits. Over two decades ago, the IPCC's Third Assessment Report in 2001 specifically predicted that developing countries will suffer the most damage from the negative impacts of climate change. This has become reality over more than two decades now: the climate change crisis is unfair, and leaves those who contribute least to it suffering the most consequences. The remedy is urgent action. A report by World Bank emphasized the need for countries in the Sahel region to accelerate growth and development by prioritizing climate adaptation to alleviate poverty and address food insecurity. But finding and adopting such solutions requires political will. That is why Nigeria's election is so important. As we have seen, if we want to fight to eliminate hunger, gender inequality, poverty, and a lack of education, then voters must cast a ballot for climate smart leaders. This decade is crucial to meet our sustainable development goals. Elections are the way to find the political will to make climate justice a reality. 

Adenike Titilope Oladosu is an ecofeminist, eco-reporter and a climate justice leader. She specializes in peace, security and equality in Africa, especially in the Lake Chad region.Sources: Dataphyte; IPCC; Mo Ibrahim Foundation; National Bureau of Statistic, Nigeria; Relief Web; Sahara Reporters; Sun News; United Nations 

Photo Credit: A man casting his vote at a pooling unit in Idiko-Ile during the February 23, 2019 Presidential Election in Nigeria, courtesy of Gregade/  

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Adenike Oladosu

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more