On the morning of February 25, a crowd of about 50 people had formed a queue at a polling unit on Ayilara Street in Surulere, a lively district in Lagos, the cultural and economic heart of Nigeria. They were waiting to cast their votes in the presidential election. Victoria Godwin, a young woman in the queue, noticed a badly beaten man running in the distance, chased by men armed with sticks, knives and cutlasses. She looked away.

Not long after, the armed men came to her polling booth and began ordering people to leave. Godwin, a first-time voter, was frightened and confused. A woman standing close by was in tears. She asked Godwin if she was Igbo. “They’re chasing Igbo people away,” she told Godwin. The mostly Christian Igbos comprise between 15 and 18% of the Nigerian population and are the third largest ethnic group, behind the Yoruba and the Hausa. 

Across Nigeria that day, there were many such incidents of ethnicity-based voter intimidation. The 2023 Nigerian elections were reported to have been so marred by violence and vote-rigging that both major opposition parties immediately called for the results to be overturned. Legal challenges have been filed but the disputed winner, Bola Tinubu, will be sworn in on May 29. 

The elections may now be over, barring an unlikely overturning of the result by the courts, but millions of Nigerians are still reeling from the divisive campaigning. Since Nigeria transitioned from a military dictatorship to a democracy in 1999, no Igbo has been elected president. And though there has been an informal arrangement to rotate the presidency between the Muslim north and Christian south of Nigeria in order to bring together a linguistically, religiously, ethnically and culturally diverse country, there has also been no president from the southeast, where Igbos are the dominant ethnic group. 

But by February 2023, it seemed likely that Nigeria’s new president would be Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra State in southeastern Nigeria who is ethnically Igbo and who led most polls. Obi defeated Tinubu on his home turf in Lagos State, but Tinubu still won the election. That Obi would not be president — after all the hope and promise he represented for many Igbos — was a bitter pill to swallow. Even if the courts rule that there are no grounds to overturn the election results, the violence, the disenfranchisement of Igbos in particular and various flaws reported in the voting process are enough to conclude, as international observers did, that the “election fell well short of Nigerian citizens’ reasonable expectations.” 

“We now understand that we are not one in Nigeria,” said Ebuka, who was forced to leave his polling unit in Surulere because he was Igbo. He later came back and voted with the help of the police. “Left to me, if the Yorubas and Hausas aren’t comfortable with the Igbos ruling them, then there should be freedom. Biafra should come, and everybody should go to their land,” he said. Ebuka is referring to the secessionist state founded by the Igbo people in 1967, the creation of which led to the Nigerian Civil War. By 1970, when the war ended with Biafra’s surrender, more than two million people had died and millions more had been displaced. 

The campaigning in the presidential election this February, and in state elections in March, showed that tribalism is resurgent in Nigeria and that ethnic prejudice and division still run deep. Tinubu, the incoming Nigerian president, will find he is in charge of a country that is once again asking itself existential questions, asking what it means to be Nigerian.

A campaign poster for Peter Obi, who was widely anticipated to become Nigeria’s first democratically elected Igbo president. He was defeated in a disputed election marred by ethnic tension. Photo by Andrew Esiebo/For The Washington Post via Getty Images.

At the polling booth in Surulere on February 25, there were only two people ahead of Godwin in the queue when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Two men told her to leave the queue. “As I was leaving, the men started laughing. They said I was very stupid and that I should have gone to Nnewi to vote,” she told me. Nnewi is a commercial and industrial city in Anambra State, where Igbos are in the majority. 

Godwin looked at the electoral officials at the booth for help but they were powerless. “I walked away feeling very sad,” she told me. “I’d never felt that useless before. I had looked forward to voting.”

The ethnic profiling targeted at the Igbos living in Lagos during the elections was deliberate and amplified by social media, says Timi Olagunju, a policy consultant. It was a whipping up, he told me, of Nigeria’s “primordial public.” This is a reference to the work of Peter Palmer Ekeh, a Nigerian sociologist, known for his 1975 paper, “Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa.” According to Ekeh, the African experience of colonialism resulted in “the emergence of a unique historical configuration in modern postcolonial Africa: the existence of two publics instead of one public, as in the West.” Ekeh characterizes these two publics as primordial and civic. The primordial concerns private interests and attachments such as ethnicity, religion and tribalism, while the civic refers to national and civil structures, such as the military or the bureaucracy. “Many of Africa’s political problems,” Ekeh wrote, “are due to the dialectical relationships between the two publics.” 

In the heat of Nigeria’s rancorous presidential election, politically motivated tribalistic disinformation spread like wildfire across social media. Peter Obi, the Labour Party candidate, who is a Christian, was accused of destroying Muslim communities when he was a governor and portrayed as sympathetic to the Indigenous People of Biafra, the secessionist organization in southeastern Nigeria.

Online narratives were further spun to imply that Igbo people wanted to take over Lagos. On March 18, three weeks after the presidential elections, most of Nigeria’s 36 states went back to the polls to elect state governors. In Lagos State, WhatsApp groups lit up with messages that warned that the Labor Party gubernatorial aspirant Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour intended to empower the Indigenous People of Biafra. If Rhodes-Vivour came into power, the messages said, he’d lay off civil servants in Lagos and hire Igbos to replace them. Rhodes-Vivour is Yoruba, but his marriage to an Igbo apparently raised hackles.

Anti-Igbo messages and threats were widespread in the days before the Lagos gubernatorial election. A video went viral on social media of Musiliu Akinsanya, a well-known Lagos civil servant and political operative, telling voters to stay home if they weren’t planning on voting for the ruling APC party. 

“Tell them,” Akinsanya was filmed saying, “‘Mama Chukwudi,’ if you don’t want to vote for us, sit down at home. Sit down at home.” Mama Chukwudi is a reference to a typical Igbo name. After the video attracted outrage on social media, Akinsanya claimed it was just a friendly joke. And the Nigerian police backed him up. But during the presidential elections on February 25, Akinsanya had been caught on camera preventing Igbo voters from voting in a polling unit in Lagos. He was not even reprimanded, let alone punished.

“If Akinsanya had been arrested and questioned, even if not imprisoned,” the policy consultant Timi Olagunju told me, “it would have sent shivers through the APC camp and empowered people to come out to vote.” The violent rhetoric and bullying at the ballot box had its desired effect. The voter turnout for the presidential election was a record low of 27%, and the turnout for the gubernatorial elections just weeks later was equally disappointing.

Ugo Ude, a second-year English student at Lagos State University, showed up to vote in the presidential election at 7:05 in the morning. The booths opened at eight and within 25 minutes she had cast her vote. Not long after she voted, she says, a gang of “fierce-looking” men showed up, singled a man out from the queue and told him to leave. As he did, Ugo heard an elderly woman say, “let Igbo go to their states to vote Igbo, and let Yorubas do the same.”

For Ude, the woman’s words were an insight into the mentality of some of her compatriots. She herself was told to leave the booth. “Go away,” Ude says people, including the elderly woman, shouted at her. “You’re a stranger.” Something broke inside her that day, she told me. When she meets fellow Nigerians, she is wary: “I’m now asking myself, ‘Would you stand up for me or would you be part of the machinery that’ll be used to attack me?’” 

Ude, who runs a nonprofit organization that provides educational materials to children, says she’s “always been optimistic about Nigeria.” She acknowledged that she had been shocked by the bigotry on display during the elections but took solace in the messages she’d seen that rejected tribalism. 

“I will keep voting and I will keep doing my nonprofit work,” she told me. “Although there will be times when I’ll doubt the effectiveness of what I’m doing, I just can’t let it slide. If the kids want to grow up and become tribal bigots that’s up to them.”