Why Election Boycotts are Bad Strategy

By J Duke Anago

Before I commence this article, I must reiterate my stand. I am Igbo before being a Nigerian. That makes me a Biafran. I support referendum for the Igbos. I would not want to live in a country where the President will declare openly to treat a section differently because they voted for another candidate. I detest a country where such prejudiced comment from the President gets supports from another region. I abhor the continued marginalisation of the Igbos.


In addition,  I support Nnamdi Kanu’s effort to salvage the situation but I am also educated enough to know that although the impact of election boycotts include increasing the likelihood of political reform; increasing the chances of international communities intervening and listening to the plea of the oppositions, the purpose of this article is to take us back to drawing board so we won’t make a costly mistake that will erode the little leverage we have collectively earned true the leadership and temerity of Nnamdi Kanu, IPOB members and all Igbos who are tired of second class citizen status in Nigeria. Any mistake with wrong strategy, especially now that we have raised serious awareness about the marginalisation and other regions are beginning to see and understand our pain, will be disastrous.


With due respect to IPOB members and Nnamdi Kanu, as an Igbo man, from Anambra State, I feel that regional boycott or state boycott strategy is not a great strategy and may not guarantee success in a short run and long run. This is because boycotts of an election in countries with weak geopolitical relevance do not always garner international attentions necessary to allow the boycotting parties to gain some benefits. A boycott in Nigeria will not get the same attention a boycott will get in USA, United Kingdom, France or even South Africa. Therefore, instead of boycotting the election, I believe IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu should use their leverage to get hold of all the executive seats including legislative positions in the whole of South East and dialogue with the South-South to join us. From there, when we boycott the Presidential election in 2019 if a referendum is not held, the international communities may intervene because the effect will be high.


More seriously why a boycott is not a grand strategy is the historical significance of previous boycotts. Of the 171 cases of boycotts from 1990 to 2009 investigated by Matthew Frankel (2010), in his foreign policy paper at Brookings, which were all boycotts of an election at National level (Presidential election and Prime Minister, and not State), a little 4% returned skeletal success. The successful ones are divided into two: Quorum boycott (Moldovia 2000 and recently Turkey) where a two-third majority is required to elect a President or Prime Minister. If we boycott, can we derail the Presidential election not getting up to two-third? No! Don’t we think to achieve this, we need to at least dialogue with the South-West and South-South to understand our quest so they can assist us in the boycott? They want a restructured country as well.  Even some Northerners want their country excluding the Igbos. Dialogue is essential to achieve this, and we must begin to dialogue immediately if we want the boycott to have maximum effect.


On the second aspect, the successful opposition boycott (Bangladesh in 1996, Peru in 2000-01, and Thailand in 2006-07) had majority support from the people who sustained civil unrest, mobilised street protest, strikes, and they boast of additional weapons at their disposal. For instance, in Bangladesh, it was successful because the boycott was accompanied by mass protests, general strikes by civil servants, which shut the country down two days before the election. While the election went on and saw Zia’s BNP took 205 of 207 seats in the lowest turnout election in their history, the continued protest and strike forced the Zia to grudgingly agree to another set of elections under a caretaker government. This time around, the boycotters (Awami) agreed to participate and earned 147 of 299 seats.

 Similarly, In Peru (the year 2000) after President Fujimori ruled endlessly for years, the leader of the opposition, A. Toledo after coming second in the poll, which did not give President Fujimoro majority, boycotted the rerun election. The President won a landslide in the run-off. The international community led by the Organisation of American States intervened and refused to validate Fajimori’s election. The pressure was much, and he resigned six months later under corruption allegations. The interim government organised election and Toledo won.

Thailand in 2006 saw their embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called for an election 60 days earlier, just like Theresa May did in the United Kingdom. The opposition angered and accused the PM of trying to use the election as a makeshift referendum and boycotted the election. Thaksin’s party won 458 seats in the election. But just like the two cases of Bangladesh and Peru, popular support was on the side of the opposition. The PM stepped down after massive protest and demonstrations greeted the country post-election. The court nullified the election and caretaker government called for a new election.

It is, however, instructive to note that even in all these three cases of success, victories were not a clear cut as most of the countries suffered and moved away from democratic process because election boycotts “derail” democratisation especially in those societies that have yet to consolidate its democracies, e.g. Nigeria. This will be the case if an election is boycotted in Anambra state (but not strong enough for the military to take over the country; Anambra State alone will move away from democratisation to military administratorship). In the case of Thailand, the military intervened and filled the void for 15 months before the election was held. Still, it is not an easy ride. It became successful because the majority of the citizens keyed into the agitation making the international community to intervene. Can international community intervene when an election is boycotted in Anambra state? Can international community intervene when an election is boycotted in 5 eastern states while other 30 states went successfully? Don’t we see that this strategy will fail just as it failed in the below ten countries I will highlight below:

  1. In Iraq, the NDF, a key Sunni political party decided to boycott January 2005 election, a strategy regarded as a strategic blunder of the post-Saddam era. They did not only lose their majority; they were not able to participate in the constitutional drafting of new constitution due to inadequate representation. They realised their error and participated in December 2005 election and won 55 seats.
  2. In Ethiopia, opposition party boycotted the 1994 parliamentary election. The ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front won a landslide victory, taking 484 of 547 seats in the election and was quickly recognised and supported by the US.
  3. Closer to home is the Ghanaian opposition that decided to boycott the 1992 parliamentary elections to protest the election of Jerry Rawlings as President. They wanted a fresh election and assumed that the international attention from the boycott would garner enough condemnation to make it happen. As you all know, no new election was held, and JR remained President until 2001. His party took 189 of 200 seats in the parliamentary. Thanks to the ill-advised boycott.
  4. In Mali 1997 general election, the opposition boycotted the election with claimed that Alpha Oumar Konare government committed massive fraud. Just as we accuse INEC today of potential gross election irregularities, Konare got elected so easily; his party took 123 of 147 seats in the legislature even with recognised low voter turnout. The US did not only recognise the result, the Secretary of States then – Madeleine Albright – tagged Mali as a relative bastion of democracy in West Africa.
  5. A similar incident occurred in Azerbaijani where the opposition boycotted the 2003 election claiming election irregularities. The son of their longtime President Heydar Aliyev won regardless of the post-election protest. The US recognised the result of the election.
  6. In 1996, Zambian opposition UNIP, headed by Keneth Kaunda decided to boycott the general election forcing their MPs not to stand for their own seats. Extremely educated F.T. Chiluba was elected, and his party took 125 of 157 parliamentary seats, giving him a supermajority for the first time. And the boycott pushed the UNIP to the verge of political extinction and yet to recover till date.
  7. In Gambia, UDP fell into complex disarray after boycotting the 2002 parliamentary elections over claims of irregularity in 2001 Presidential election. As usual, the ruling party won, and the election was never overturned.
  8. In Zimbabwe, the opposition MDC lost 16 seats because of the boycott. Morgan Tsvangirai made the fatal decision to boycott. He did not only lose his seat and mandate, the party splintered. Even when he came closer in the 2008 Presidential election, he decided to boycott the run-off with Mugabi, which turned his near victory into set back.
  9. In Cameroun, three opposition parties with 56 % of the parliament vote five years earlier decided to boycott in 1997 Presidential election because of Paul Biya disputed victory. He did win a landslide and remained President till date.
  10. From Serbia parliamentary election in 1997 to Kenya in 1997 where Kenneth Matilba boycotted the election, and Arap Moi won and Afghanistan in 2001, all resulted in one thing – failure and more marginalisation to the opposition.


Frankel (2010) concluded that boycotts always end in a failure, where the oppositions are even marginalised the more. This is because boycotting is wilful removing of oneself from periodic competition for political power. In many developing countries like Nigeria, control of the government and its ministries means control of vital outlets for patronage. Choosing not to participate thus relegates the group to the position of vocal opposition without influence in the competition for scarce state resources. This becomes worse when international support fails to materialise as we have often seen here where the UK and the US support the North and majority against us, the minority. So, if we seriously consider this, boycott without the other Southern Nigerians supporting us will be a fruitless venture. Let us take control of the South East states through election so we can be in the position of strength to threaten boycott and force the federal government to listen and consider our bidding – referendum.

Reference: Frankel, M (2010) Threaten but participate: Why election boycotts are a bad idea, Policy Paper, Foreign Policy at Brookings.

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