No Simple Choices as Nigeria Votes

Election posters in Nigeria (Flickr/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

The presidential election scheduled for March 28 in Nigeria has been seen by many as a choice between two evils. Both leading candidates appear deeply flawed. Even worse, supporters of both have threatened resistance if their side loses.

Some Nigerians imagine a third possibility: If a serious impasse follows the vote, which was delayed from February 14, supposedly to quell the threat of Boko Haram, an interim government could be formed with the cooperation of both major parties. This would, however, hardly be a cure-all for the many problems affecting Africa’s most populous country.

President Goodluck Jonathan, who is running for reelection, is perceived as a better economic manager than opponent and former military leader Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan’s domestic achievements, such as improving infrastructure and the economy have, however, been overshadowed by his failure to take strong steps against Boko Haram, which is rampaging the northeast region of the country.

To make things worse, Jonathan is widely perceived as consistently looking the other way when it comes to fighting corruption. Indeed, corruption has been somewhat “democratized” on his watch, with politicians and government cronies seeming to pillage the country with impunity. The most prominent of the country’s recent scandals is the theft and mismanagement of 6.8 billion USD under an oil subsidy scheme, which is yet to be properly addressed.

Should Jonathan be reelected, Nigeria might not only be dealing with atrocities perpetrated by Boko Haram. Many voters fear that the president’s inability to manage the threat of this group, or other lawlessness, could indicate that violence will spread through the entire northern part of the country. Jonathan’s supporters, however, argue that since he is from the South-South region— which has long seen itself as sidelined from enjoying its rightful economic benefits and role in national politics—he might simply need more time to adapt to the new type of security challenges posed by Boko Haram.

Militants in the South-South, which encompasses the oil-rich Niger Delta, not only support the president but also have openly declared “there will be civil war if Jonathan loses the election.” One of the region’s leaders has even threatened that “if the north takes power away from Jonathan, the Niger Delta will take their oil away. Nobody has [a] monopoly of violence.” Some dismiss this as electoral rhetoric, but the Niger Delta militants are nonetheless capable of unleashing severe attacks. And, with 90% of Nigeria’s foreign earnings coming from oil, a loss for Jonathan and any subsequent action from the militants could undermine the national economy and the operation of the central government.

Opposition candidate Buhari was Nigeria’s military head of state between January 1984 and August 1985. This election is his fourth attempt to become a democratically elected president of the country. Due in part to his military background and his identity as a Muslim from the north, many see him as best equipped to handle the country’s security crisis. This is ironic, since Buhari’s inflammatory rhetoric during the 2011 election, which continued after the campaign, contributed to post-election violence. History also seems to be repeating itself, with some of his current party leaders accused of threatening violence if he loses. One of them told a crowd of supporters that Buhari and his party would proclaim a parallel government if they lost the election in ways they considered unfair.

Buhari waged an aggressive war on corruption during the two years of his military rule, which has allowed him to campaign as an anti-corruption crusader. Some caution is in order here, however. Ruling by military decree is different from democratic governance. Moreover, a recent report concluded that Nigeria’s Petroleum Trust Fund was mired in corruption and nepotism when Buhari ran it in the 1990s during the regime of General Sani Abacha. There is also general concern about Buhari’s ability to manage the economy, and even some of his strongest supporters acknowledge that economics is not his strong suit.

If neither of these two leading candidates wins an outright victory at the polls, the alternative would be to form an interim government. This suggestion has attracted a growing public discourse. Some have argued that given the state of the country, an interim government would provide space for the adoption of the reforms contained in the 2014 National Conference report, which many viewed as addressing the country’s problems in an inclusive way. A transitional period like this might help an interim government shape a new and inclusive social contract for Nigeria. This, however, will be a hard idea to sell to those who benefit from the current system.

Already, the call for an interim government has led to both leading contenders and their supporters pointing fingers in each other’s directions. The opposition claims that Jonathan is promoting it to hold onto power longer, but the president himself has said calling for an interim government is a treasonable offence. The current constitution does not presently provide for the implementation of an interim government, but the dynamism of the debate will change if there is an impasse after the election.

Outsiders presume that the biggest challenge to this election is Boko Haram. The truth is that a successful and peaceful election depends mainly on whether the two candidates and their supporters keep their pledges to practice non-violence during and after the elections. Their current rhetoric is not promising in this regard. On the positive side, any resulting impasse after the polls could help start the overdue process of reinventing Nigeria.

Patricia Agupusi is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.