Neutrality under threat as Nigerian election looms

To support Nigeria’s upcoming elections the US State Department has announced visa restrictions for those involved in undermining democracy


It has now been over a week since the embattled Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, returned to his country on Monday, January 16, 2023, and apart from a small commotion at the airport, so far all has been well.

Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, has reined in his secret police, who may have fabricated claims in order to arrest Governor Emefiele.

Diplomats and foreign observers agree that Buhari may wish to leave his legacy, one that respects the constitutional independence of institutions like the Central Bank of Nigeria, even as it seems at the risk of offending his own party’s Presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, who has portrayed himself as the continuity candidate to Mr Buhari.

The pressure from senior members of the ruling APC party has been focused on Emefiele’s decision, taken last year, to change the design of the Naira note. As a consequence, the number of notes circulating in the cash-dominated economy reportedly declined 4% to 3.16 trillion Naira ($6.9 billion). The change also renders the old Naira notes invalid three weeks to the February 25 elections, with predictable ramifications for campaign finance.

Many commentators furthermore believe that the design change has been timed intentionally to undermine attempts to buy votes by invalidating old notes hidden and stockpiled for election day. This interpretation is made more credible by the concurrent limit on cash withdrawals.

Emefiele left the country, returning January 15th once his leave expired. House Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila has this week raised the prospect of arresting him in relation to the Naira note crisis.

But what can international observers and partners do?

To begin with, Nigeria is in dire need of international finance and loans to combat a host of domestic economic maladies. China is no longer giving out loans in Africa, under pressure from their own domestic challenges, not least a housing market crisis with 90 million units of houses empty and a resurgence of COVID-19.

It could be possible nonetheless to tie the $10bn in loans that Nigeria likely needs to commitments to respect the independence of the central bank of Nigeria.US Secretary of State, Anthony J Blinken, issued a statement yesterday about visa restrictions on individuals who undermine the 2023 election. That was perhaps in response to the threats. That is a good first step, but more still has to be done. Much more.

While the West will naturally be reticent to be seen to interfere with Nigerian elections, more attention and international scrutiny into Nigerian affairs can only help in cleansing the most overt political interferences with the independence of core government institutions.

26th January 2023