One of the worst days in my career — My experience documenting the 2023 Nigeria election.

“It was my first time documenting Nigeria’s Election Day, and I was super excited to do it. I had started telling the election story from the campaigns of two of the top leading presidential aspirants, Peter Obi Gregory of Labour Party, and Bola Ahmed Tinubu of All Progressive Congress. A few of my reports were commissioned and published by African Report Magazine and New York Times.

LAGOS, NGA — FEBRUARY 11, 2023: “Make Nigeria great”, Obi’s biggest hope for Nigeria as he speaks to his supporters at his ongoing campaign rally on February 11, 2023 at Alaba market, Lagos, Nigeria. CREDIT: Taiwo Aina for The New York Times
“Make Nigeria great”, Obi’s biggest hope for Nigeria as he speaks to his supporters at his ongoing campaign rally on February 11, 2023 at Alaba market, Lagos, Nigeria. For The New York Times

This election is essential to many people, especially the youth, as the system has disappointed them in various ways, such as insecurity issues, the 2020 EndSARS occurrence, police brutality protests, the inconvenience caused by the new Naira policy, and the standard of living, among others.

An average Nigerian youth hopes for a better system that cares about the welfare of the citizens, with job opportunities, an improved standard of living, great security, and a balanced economy. Is that too much to ask for? The active participation of youths in the 2023 elections is commendable, and Peter Obi is the hope of many youths who are determined to vote for him and put him in power. In a system with free, fair, and credible elections, this should be possible, right? Let us look forward to the election results.”

Voters waiting to be accredited by inec officials. It is a walk of mercy afterall. February 25, 2023 at Ikoyi, Lagos Nigeria. February 25, 2023.

“I stayed at my friend’s house, who is also a photojournalist, the night before to ensure easy and fast movement to the first polling unit we were going to observe, which is in Ikoyi. We arrived there around 8:15 am. A few voters were already at the polling units, and the INEC officers were already at work, pasting the names of registered voters on the wall.

Pasted voters database at Ikoyi, Lagos Nigeria on February 25, 2023.

To be eligible to vote in Nigeria, you have to be 18 years old to register for a permanent voter’s card, which enables you to vote in the polling unit of your preference. On Election Day, voters have to verify their names on the pasted database. Afterward, they proceed for accreditation, which involves PVC confirmation, thumb printing, and face capturing.

When this is done, voters are allocated their stamped and signed ballot papers. Then voters go into a private polling booth to secretly cast their vote for their favorite candidate/party via thumb printing, and ballot papers are inserted into boxes to be counted at the end of the voting day by INEC officials at the polling unit.

Another observation I made was that Election Day is also a football festival in the empty streets of Lagos. The road was so empty due to the security curfew of vehicle restrictions imposed from 6 am to 6 pm. Only vehicles on election duty are allowed to navigate the roads. Football was played by ineligible voters (youngsters) or eligible voters who have already cast their votes. I found this quite interesting. Our next stop was at Obalende then Akerele, Surulere, a popular place on the mainland.”

We got to Surulere around 1 pm. I was surprised to see many people standing and waiting to vote, which is in contrast to Ikoyi. I guess it’s because we have more people in that community.

Oluwasesan Omolayo; a 63 year old civil servant who was waiting for his wife to vote. He who has voted about 8 times since 2nd republic till this current election. He mentioned that he has no option to exercise his civic responsibility in which he owes his nation. Olusesan said that he was his right to choose who his new leader will be. “Nigeria will be better, at every occasion we have to vote, we keep on hoping that it will get better. One doesn’t have to be disappointed even if your candidate loses, democracy is based on the majority. The majority will have its way while the minority will have its say. He also encourages his children to vote. During His last words during the interview, he encourages reluctant people staying indoor to come out and cast their vote. A vote can make a change.” says Olusesan.

I also spoke to an observer, who complained about the unusually slow process. “I’m a citizen, and I’m here to vote to exercise my civic right and also observe what is happening and ensure that there is no problem anywhere. I haven’t voted; I have been here as early as 9 am, the queue was so long. I stepped out briefly to see what was going on around other booths. Many of them had finished. When I got back, the line hadn’t moved. I decided to go home to get something to eat. My wife had to go back home, so tired. It looks like we have big clusters of voters here. I don’t know why it happened that way because other units nearby aren’t this much. Secondly, the officials are too slow, and their equipment isn’t functioning optimally. Tension is bound to increase. I have been voting since 1982, and I look forward to this election being concluded smoothly.”

Not up to 30 minutes later, masked unknown gunmen came to snatch the presidential ballot box, leaving the other two boxes (Senatorial and House of Representatives).

Everyone ran helter-skelter in search of a safe place. This was a nightmare for me as I was scared and literally shaking. Thank goodness I was able to secure my gear at this point. Unfortunately, my friend and colleague who is on assignment for the National Agency Radio (NPR) lost his audio gear as it was stepped on and destroyed during this sad occurrence. Ballot box theft occurred in many places across Lagos, and the presidential boxes remained the target. Rumors have it that this was sponsored by some opposition party thugs at polling units where Peter Obi was winning.

We left Surulere immediately and went back home for safety. We were done reporting for the day, and no story is worth our lives.

Later in the evening, at 7 pm, I took a walk around the streets of Ikoyi, trying to observe the situation and also see if a pharmaceutical store was open. The street was calm and peaceful, but stores weren’t open. I had to ask around for any local store so I could get some noodles for dinner.

I found a mini quiosk in a construction site. Apparently, he was the only one selling in the whole street. I found this story interesting for another angle of the election story and decided to take a photograph of the situation. As I raised my camera, I was abruptly stopped by an unknown angry man who insisted on breaking my camera and beating me before I left the shop. It was a public place, and I didn’t even take any picture yet. It felt like I was in a movie. I was alone and stranded. No one was on the angry man’s side, so I had to beg them to calm him. I was already crying as I quickly paid via POS for the groceries I bought. The man was determined to show me shege and break my camera. I was tense and had to persuade someone there to escort me back home. I was safe, and my camera wasn’t destroyed. Today was absolutely one of the worst days in my career.

The election was supposed to last from 9 am to 2:30 pm, but due to the challenges faced, the time had to be extended, and lots of people had to wait until night or the next day to vote. In 48–72 hours, the newly elected president will be announced.

It was a mixed feeling documenting election day. I’m happy I was able to photograph the historic event, but sad all the bad stuff happened. It was amazing to see youths yearn for hope and come out in numbers to cast their votes; this hasn’t happened in a while in Nigeria. Above all, it was a learning process for me. Be security conscious when documenting crucial issues like this, never walk alone as a photojournalist, and always learn to communicate.

My name is Taiwo Aina, a visual storyteller and i write periodically on this blog. You can check more about my photo projects on my website. If you enjoyed this, drop a comment and share.

Text and photographs by Taiwo Aina.

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A visual storyteller interested in human life daily experiences and the societal issues that affect them. www.taiwoaina.com

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Taiwo Aina

A visual storyteller interested in human life daily experiences and the societal issues that affect them. www.taiwoaina.com