On February 16, as many as eighty-four million voters will cast their ballots in Nigeria’s presidential and National Assembly elections. Of the two, focus is undoubtedly on the presidential ballot which will see the incumbent and flagbearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), President Muhammadu Buhari, square off against former vice president and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Atiku Abubakar. Despite the participation of several other candidates, the ballot will effectively be a two-horse race between the APC and PDP front-runners.
As is the case with many sitting heads of state seeking re-election, President Buhari will head into Saturday’s polls as a slight favorite. Indeed, in all elections for head of state in Africa in which the incumbent has sought re-election, only twelve percent have rendered a victory for an opposition candidate. This largely as a result of the power that incumbency generates in terms of patronage, support, and even undue electoral influence.
However, the power of the office of the presidency is not the only factor that Buhari has in his favor. As per registration numbers released by Nigeria’s electoral commission (INEC), the highest concentration of voters are in political zones which overwhelming voted in his favor in the 2015 ballot. Given that political support in Nigeria is generally divided along geographic and ethno-religious lines, it is expected that these regions will vote the same in this election.
That said, Atiku is not out of the race. Indeed, in Nigeria’s electoral system the winning presidential candidate must secure more than fifty percent of the national vote and a minimum of twenty-five percent of the vote in two thirds of the country’s 36 states and in the Federal Capital Territory. If no candidate achieves this threshold, a second-round run-off will be necessary between the two candidates with the most votes. In this second round, a simple majority is required to pronounce a winner. This format is designed to ensure that no one political zone in Nigeria can deliver a president.
Also working in Atiku’s favor is the fact that registered voter numbers are only decisive if they result in high turnout. And this is where President Buhari may find himself on the back foot with respect to his competitor. Out of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, Buhari and the wider APC are most popular in the North West, North Central, and North East, which are also the most insecure zones in the country.
In the North East—which includes the states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba, and Yobe—voting in the impending election will occur under the specter of the Boko Haram insurgency. Over the past twelve months in northeastern Nigeria there has been a marked escalation in Islamist extremist violence between the rival factions of the Boko Haram movement, aligned under the respective leadership of Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The latter faction, which is recognized as the official affiliate of the Islamic State and has assumed the moniker of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), has been particularly active. Operating from central to northern Borno state and extending into Yobe, ISWAP has overrun several military bases in both states, seizing large caches of weapons, equipment, and vehicles in the process.
Although more indiscriminate in their operations, Shekau’s Boko Haram faction also poses a discernible threat to electoral processes in the region, particularly given the sect’s penchant for targeting civilian interests. This was highlighted in late January when the group launched two separate attacks on the Borno state town of Rann, killing in excess of 60 people and displacing 30,000 others. It was one of several attacks to be launched by the Shekau faction targeting communities in the North East zone. Like ISWAP, Boko Haram will also be incentivized to violently disrupt the elections given that the process underpins the secular governance system in Nigeria that both groups are ultimately seeking to overthrow and replace with Sharia Law. This fact was underscored on February 13 when the convoy of Borno state governor, Kashim Shettima, came under attack by ISWAP militants on a highway connecting the cities of Maiduguri and Gamboru, resulting in the deaths of four soldiers. It was in the latter city where Shettima, who was uninjured in the attack, was set to hold an election campaign rally.
In the neighboring North Central political zone—constituting the states of Kogi, Niger, Benue, Kwara, Plateau, Nassarawa, and the Federal Capital Territory—there is an escalating cycle of violence between nomadic, Fulani Muslim pastoralists who are vying for land resources and predominantly Christian sedentary farmers. Some of these states are key Buhari strongholds. While communal antagonism between the Christian farmers and Fulani Muslims groups has been historically high, a recent spate of hostilities has intensified in both scale and frequency. Violence between the groups has recently resulted in more casualties than violence associated with the Boko Haram insurgency. Given that Fulani herdsmen—who are often alleged to be the aggressors in the violence—are from the same ethnic group as Buhari, violence throughout the lead up to the election could carry the strong ethno-political and religious undertones into this weekend, a worrisome outcome for a region where such cleavages have long catalyzed violence.
Buhari himself is from the North West region—consisting of Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Buhari’s home state state of Katsina—which proved pivotal in his successful 2015 electoral bid. Of all voters who casted ballots in the North West in the last election, 81.3 percent voted for Buhari. This time, 23.9 percent of all registered voters are in the North West, which could mean the region will again be a deciding factor in delivering a second term for Buhari. However, voting turnout in the region could be significantly impacted by mass outbreaks of violence linked to banditry and cattle rustling. Between January 1, 2018 and January 1, 2019, an estimated 573 people were killed in acts of violence associated with ethnic militias and organized criminal groups operating across these states. The casualties occurred as a result of 70 separate acts of violence that mainly took the form of armed raids on civilian settlements. Violence and associated insecurity have continued in the region, despite the deployment of military assets to the North West, and there are significant concerns that the activities of armed actors could negatively impact voter turnout in affected local areas during the election. Should this occur, it would be to the detriment of Buhari.
In contrast, areas which are strongholds of the PDP have been less afflicted by violence, which could result in higher turnout. In the South South region where nearly 90 percent of the electorate voted in favor of former president and PDP leader, Goodluck Jonathan, militancy linked to the region’s oil industry remains pacified. This is largely due to the ongoing maintenance of a Presidential Amnesty Program (PAP) which has disincentivized militancy in the region by providing dissident armed groups access to state patronage in return for laying down their arms.
In the neighboring South East, where Jonathan secured 87.6 percent of the vote in 2015, agitation by Igbo nationalists seeking secession has also reduced due to the proscription of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement as a terrorist organization, and the wider curtailment of related organizations. While IPOB has nonetheless called for a boycott of the election as to not add legitimacy to the Nigerian state, the group lacks both the intent and capacity to disrupt voting processes in the South East through acts of violence. This will likely benefit Atiku and help the PDP secure a large majority of the ten million voters registered in the region.
As was the case in the 2015 election, the issue of national security is a central concern to voters and could affect election results. The degree of its impact will be closely related to the pervasiveness or lack of violence on election day. Moreover, irrespective of the levels of violence observed on February 16, questions around domestic security will continue to be of concern to the elected government, who will need to be aware that the consequences of insecurity could define Nigeria’s socio-political stability well beyond election day.