Nigeria faces an uphill battle as it wades through challenges that could derail its presidential elections.
Seen as a fast growing economy and a strong democratic force in the region, Nigeria is at a crossroads in its journey as a rising African power. Marred by the emergence of Boko Haram, the calcification of the north-south split and falling oil prices, Nigeria’s future lies in the hands of its contentious and highly anticipated presidential elections.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy, which is projected to become the world’s 13th largest by 2050. Unfortunately, the country faces strong centrifugal forces as it is roughly divided along ethno religious lines between a generally poor Muslim north and a more economically advanced Christian south, with a middle belt acting as a buffer. The unequal level of development has led to tenuous relations between the two regions and has exacerbated the struggle for political power.
On March 28, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south and leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), will run for a second full-term against Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and a former military dictator of Nigeria. As a perennial also-ran, having already participated and lost in the past three elections, Buhari has managed to build a strong base of followers in the predominantly Muslim north, and he has made significant inroads in the south.
Nominally, Nigeria possesses a presidential system, with American-style checks and balances through an independent judicial system and a two-chambered congress. However, in a bid to ease tension between Muslims and Christians, Nigeria instituted a de facto semi-confessionalist system, with the intent to rotate the presidency back and forth between a Muslim and Christian every eight years. As a result, votes are usually cast along religious lines, a factor that increases the disconnect between the two regions of the country.
From a technical standpoint, the previous presidential elections of 2011 were judged as relatively efficient and open, with Human Rights Watch even deeming them the “freest” in Nigeria’s history. However, opposition leaders, and in particular Gen. Buhari, alleged that the vote had been rigged, galvanizing their supporters, which unleashed a sectarian three-day civil bloodbath that left over 800 people dead. Mobs attacked and ransacked hundreds of Christian settlements and places of worship, displacing some 65,000 Nigerians.
Hoping to dispel such concerns this time round, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) in Nigeria has rethought the system from the ground up. By using biometric systems and issuing Personal Voting Cards (PVCs) to all Nigerians, the INEC is hoping to eradicate fraud and ballot stuffing. However, the ineffective rollout of the program was one of the reasons behind the contentious postponement of the elections, which were initially scheduled for February 14. At the end of February, a full third of Nigerians had still not received their PVCs, and there are fears that the APC will subsequently use this setback to contest electoral results.
Boko Haram is a dangerous and tangible security threat, especially in northeastern Nigeria, a region representing approximately a sixth of the voting population. In 2014 alone, Boko Haram killed 10,000 citizens.
The terrorist group sparked a political crisis in Abuja, as it played second fiddle in the INEC’s decision to postpone the elections. The opposition heavily criticized President Jonathan, arguing that the administration is seeking to stall for time and unfairly revitalize its flagging voter base. However, it must be remembered that the northeast is an overwhelmingly Muslim area; making sure that citizens can safely vote in the region does not play to Jonathan’s advantage, but it guarantees that all Nigerians have access to the ballot.
While there are 14 candidates standing for election, only two are considered to be serious contenders: Jonathan and Buhari.
Even if during the previous election Gen. Buhari gained nearly 97% of his support from the north, he has successfully been able to attract southerners to his camp, thanks to his powerful rhetoric on fighting corruption and promising to crack down on Boko Haram.
Buhari is not a newcomer to Nigeria’s political arena. He seized power in 1983, becoming president after leading a military coup against democratically elected President Shehu Shagari. Buhari’s disastrous reign did not last two years and was characterized by censorship and brutal repression of human rights.
In the past, supporters aligned with Buhari and the APC have failed to peacefully accept electoral defeats, leading to the bloody 2011 elections. The former military ruler has also made some dubious comments about spreading sharia law and Islamic courts throughout Nigeria, including the Christian provinces of the south, and has sparked fears that once elected, he may pursue a radical Islamist agenda.
For his part, President Jonathan has focused on a platform of “Justice, Unity and Progress.” He often points to the developments and economic successes already achieved in Nigeria, including the 8% yearly gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate he has presided over. He also champions other causes such as increasing access to potable water, expansion of irrigated farmland and development of major housing projects. After several setbacks in the fight against Boko Haram, Jonathan has been successful in forging a four-nation coalition to fight the insurgency; Nigerian forces recently took 36 cities from the clutches of the terrorist group.
It is clear that Nigeria faces an uphill battle as it wades through the many challenges that could derail its presidential elections and endanger its economic progress. Whichever way the vote swings come March 28, all candidates must commit to patience, peace and accept the outcome of the poll. The Nigerian population must make sure their leader commits to democratic rules, and moves Nigeria further down its path to becoming Africa’s most powerful nation.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.