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 about it. I had begun telling the election story starting from the campaigns of two of the top leading presidential aspirants: Peter Obi Gregory of the Labour Party and Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress. Some of my reports were commissioned and published by African Report Magazine and New York Times.
This election is of great importance to many people, particularly the youth, who have been let down by the system in various ways. These include issues of insecurity, the 2020 EndSARS protests, police brutality, inconveniences caused by the new Naira policy, and the overall standard of living, among other concerns.
The average Nigerian youth aspires for a better system that genuinely cares about the welfare of its citizens, providing job opportunities, an improved standard of living, strong security measures, and a balanced economy. Are these expectations too high? The active participation of young people in the 2023 elections is praiseworthy, as they see Peter Obi as a beacon of hope and are determined to vote for him to bring about positive change. In a system characterized by free, fair, and credible elections, achieving these aspirations should be possible, shouldn’t it? Let us eagerly await the election results and hope for a better future.
“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.
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 roads were deserted due to the security curfew and vehicle restrictions imposed from 6 am to 6 pm. Only vehicles on election duty were permitted to navigate the roads. Football games were played by both ineligible voters (youngsters) and eligible voters who had already cast their votes. I found this aspect quite fascinating. Our next destination was Obalende, followed by Akerele in Surulere, a well-known area 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, was patiently waiting for his wife to vote. He has participated in elections approximately eight times, spanning from the Second Republic to the present. He emphasized that he had no choice but to exercise his civic responsibility, as it is his duty to his nation. Olusesan expressed his belief that he has the right to choose his new leader, adding that he holds onto hope that Nigeria will improve with each voting opportunity. He acknowledged that even if his preferred candidate loses, democracy is built upon the principle of majority rule, while the minority still has the opportunity to voice their opinions. Olusesan also encourages his children to vote, emphasizing the importance of their participation. In his concluding remarks during the interview, he urges hesitant individuals who remain indoors to come out and cast their votes, emphasizing the power of a single vote to bring about change.
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, around 7 pm, I decided to take a walk through the streets of Ikoyi to observe the situation and check if any pharmaceutical stores were open. The streets were calm and peaceful, but unfortunately, the stores were closed. I had to inquire around to find a local store where I could purchase some noodles for dinner.
Eventually, I stumbled upon a mini kiosk located in a construction site. Surprisingly, this was the only shop open on the entire street. I found this aspect of the election story intriguing and decided to capture a photograph of the situation. However, as I raised my camera, I was abruptly stopped by an angry and unknown man who threatened to break my camera and harm me, even though I hadn’t taken any pictures yet. It felt like a scene from a movie. Alone and stranded, I pleaded with those around me to calm the man down. I was already in tears as I quickly paid for the groceries I had bought using a POS system. The man remained determined to display his anger and break my camera. Feeling tense and fearful, I managed to persuade someone nearby to escort me safely back home. Thankfully, I was unharmed, and my camera remained intact. Today was undeniably one of the worst days I have experienced in my career.
The election was initially scheduled to take place from 9 am to 2:30 pm, but due to the challenges encountered, the voting time had to be extended, causing many people to wait until late at night or the following day to cast their votes. Within the next 48–72 hours, the announcement of the newly elected president will take place.
Documenting Election Day evoked mixed emotions within me. I felt a sense of satisfaction in being able to photograph this historic event, but I also experienced sadness due to the unfortunate incidents that occurred. It was remarkable to witness the enthusiasm of the youth and their desire for change as they turned out in large numbers to exercise their voting rights, something that hadn’t been seen in Nigeria for a while. Above all, it served as a valuable learning experience for me. It reinforced the importance of being security conscious when documenting critical events like this, never walking alone as a photojournalist, and always prioritizing effective communication.
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.