The Nigerian Elections and Prospects for Change

Much is at stake in the country’s sixth election since the post-dictatorship transition

Nigeria’s next general election is set to take place on Saturday, 16 February. The main contest is for the presidency of Africa’s largest petroleum exporter and the continent’s biggest economy—25th globally in terms of GDP. Beyond the presidential elections are contests for powerful governorships of most of Nigeria’s 36 states, as well as hundreds of seats in federal and state legislatures. The winners are assured pomp and circumstance, as political office holders in Nigeria are among the best-paid in the world—not to mention the possibility of illicit gains from oil-fueled corruption.

Politics has not served Nigeria well. A succession of military dictatorships and civilian governments undermined the significant potentials of this “giant of Africa”. Most of Nigeria’s 180 million people live in extreme poverty and have to contend with crumbling public infrastructure. The sizable political and economic elite have managed to create an insular world with world-class mansions, private schools, and shopping malls, regularly shipping their families around the world for education and health care. But even the rich are not insulated from the deepening insecurity, driven in part by mass impoverishment.

Nigeria is a country of immense contradictions. Touted as a land with immense potential, limited economic opportunities for the majority of its people have magnified doubts about the viability of the state itself. Geographically carved out quite indiscriminately by the colonizing British over 100 years ago, post-independence politics has struggled to forge enduring national unity. Nigerians are bound together as citizens and neighbours, but electioneering has tended to magnify regional and religious divisions.

Public discourses in the build-up to the 2019 elections sometimes invoked the spectre of disintegration. Civil conflicts have ravaged parts of the country: over three million people have been displaced by the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, destroying towns and villages in vast areas of north-eastern Nigeria and killing over 20,000 since 2010. Moreover, thousands died and whole villages were destroyed in clashes between pastoralists from the north and farming communities in the Middle Belt and southern regions. The secessionist Biafra movement in the southeast is not armed but has evidenced popular support in the past year among the Igbo people who fought a failed civil war to leave Nigeria in the late 1960s. Leaders of the Biafran movement have called for an election boycott, which the Nigerian military in turn considers a security threat.

Beyond these centrifugal tendencies, the majority of Nigerians keep hoping for a government that will guarantee even the most basic of public goods—stable electricity, which still remains a luxury in this energy-rich state. Billions of dollars in public investment over the years have not translated into tangible improvements in the national power grid. A privatized electricity distribution system was promoted as the solution, yet there have not been any real improvements since the government sold off the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). To say that Nigerians are disappointed with the government is an understatement.

Still, credible elections would help to legitimate the political elite and enable the government to address worsening socio-economic conditions. The election is also a test of the country’s democracy and the resilience of the still-fledgling traditions and institutions of civil rule. In this case, the very fact that the election is being held represents a victory of sorts—it is the sixth general election since the transition from military dictatorship in 1999, and this year Nigeria will mark an unprecedented two decades of uninterrupted democratic transition.

The survival of the post-military era has occurred in part through civil society-driven electoral reforms that corrected some of the ills of the previous polls, which were marred by varying levels of rigging and violence as politicians staked all in winner-take-all contests. However, as before, politicians have traded accusations and counter-accusations of opposing parties’ plans to rig the election. The main opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), suspended campaigning during the past weeks in protest against the president’s suspension of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court just weeks prior to the election. The PDP feared that the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) was trying to side-line the top judge who would adjudicate post-election petitions. The APC for their part accused the PDP of triggering a crisis to destabilize the government. The United States and the European Union have called for caution, as untoward outcomes of the elections could exacerbate ethno-religious tensions in this badly divided and conflict-prone country.

A Compromised Political Transition

This week’s elections will mark the first time that those born after the 1999 transition will vote legitimately—I say “legitimately” because underage voting has been reported in previous elections. Many young voters do not remember the era of military dictators who organized a political transition doomed to fail, or at best to ensure only cosmetic changes. From the late 1980s and particularly during the 1990s a vibrant pro-democracy movement challenged military rule and mobilized public opinion to force the regime to hold elections. General Ibrahim Babangida, who replaced General Buhari as head of state following a palace coup in 1985, organized a political transition programme that he himself undermined at every turn. After disqualifying “old-breed” politicians from running, he annulled the same elections that his regime organized on 12 June 1993, which were won by wealthy businessman and friend of the military rulers Moshood Abiola.

The annulment of the “June 12” elections galvanized pro-democracy campaigners who organized mass protests that forced Babangida to abdicate, leaving space for General Sani Abacha to seize power. Abacha’s brutal reign was marked by assassinations and incarcerations of opposition politicians and pro-democracy leaders. Among those who died in detention was Abiola. Abacha’s plan to use his political transition programme to become a civilian president was truncated by his sudden death in 1998. His successor General Abdusalami Abubakar came to power and immediately commenced his own transition programme, which led to elections in 1999.

Abdusalami ’s regime laid down elaborate participation requirements in the 1999 elections: for a political party to field candidates, even for local legislatures, it had to first establish offices complete with staff in the federal capital, Abuja, and in the over 700 local government councils across the country. Only retired soldiers and politicians who participated in the grand looting of Nigerian oil revenues could cough up the money and hire people to meet those conditions in such a short period. The military junta registered three political parties for the 1999 polls: the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the All People’s Party (APP), and the Alliance for Democracy (AD). The last party, considered to be the party of the Yoruba at the time, failed to satisfy the criteria set by the military but was registered to pacify an ethnic group that had campaigned very hard for the revalidation of the “June 12” elections.

Between the Babangida and Abdusalami eras, the Nigerian pro-democracy movement put forth clear proposals for re-democratizing governance in the country. One of the main suggestions was for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) as a platform for representatives of Nigerian peoples and political formations to freely discuss how to build the foundations of the Nigerian federation, and to participate in developing a constitution for the political administration of the country ahead of any elections. The SNC and the referendum that would follow was meant to be the basis for the organization of the democracy project in Nigeria. Instead, Abdusalami—with the backing of the US and EU—organized elections based on a constitution that the military regime drafted and decreed into existence with neither public debate nor a referendum.

With only three military-endorsed political parties, the 1999 elections enabled the consolidation of power by the old regime. Former military dictator General Olusegun Obasanjo emerged as the winner, and his PDP would remain in power until 2015. After eight years, Obasanjo ensured the handover of power to Umaru Yar’adua. Umaru is the younger brother of Obasanjo’s friend and second-in-command during his time as military dictator, General Shehu Yar’adua—who was killed while in detention during Abacha’s rule. Shehu’s younger brother Umaru Yar’adua succumbed to terminal illness and died in 2010 while still in power. His deputy Goodluck Jonathan assumed the presidency and has been the only post-1999 Nigerian leader without ties to past military dictatorships. Jonathan was defeated in the 2015 elections by General Buhari’s All Progressive Congress (APC), backed by prominent ex-generals including Obasanjo and Babangida. The APC was formed only the year before as a merger of three opposition parties and defectors from the PDP. This constituted the political equivalent of a palace coup.

Political space had been opened up for other political parties to participate before then against the three that the military allowed in 1999. Prior to the 2003 elections, pro-democracy fighter Gani Fawehinmi of the National Conscience Party (NCP) compelled Nigerian courts to declare that the national electoral commission was violating Nigerians’ constitutional rights by setting conditions for the registration of political parties. Yet by the time other political actors came in, the old regime had consolidated sufficient power and wealth to operate the politics of patronage. The mainstream political elite understands the game, knowing how to win by compromising institutions including the police and the judiciary through blatant election rigging

 At one point after the 2007 elections, usually circumspect international observers expressed outrage at the conduct and outcome of the polls, with the US team condemning the process for its “lack of credibility”. US observers insisted that “the system as designed did not work. Many people were denied the opportunity to vote. The Nigerian people were failed by their leaders.” Even the EU observer mission stated that the “elections have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people and the process cannot be considered to have been credible.” Nevertheless, they supported the governments that emerged.

As the victory of the APC in 2015 showed, even new political parties founded by the old guard—office holders in post-1999 governments at the federal, state, and local governments—could realign the elite consensus to replace a government when collective interests were threatened. In the build-up to this month’s election we have observed such political realignments. Influential APC members including former vice-president Atiku Abubakar returned to the PDP. Others that moved from the APC to the PDP included Senate President Bukola Saraki and dozens of federal legislators as well as six state governors. Former heads of state, Generals Obasanjo and Babangida who supported Buhari in 2015, openly declared their support for the PDP’s Atiku for the 2019 elections. This time, however, the ruling APC is leaving nothing to chance as it seeks to hold on to the top post. Recent appointments, redeployments, and retirements of top police officials and the sudden suspension of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are seen as political maneuvres to deal with the PDP threat.

“Uncivil” Rule: Crisis and Conflicts in Transition

While much attention is focused on the presidential candidates, the state governors primarily drive electoral outcomes. Sub-national governments control roughly 50 percent of oil revenues. Governors often deploy their state’s resources to hire political thugs, targeting existing youth organizations including ethnic and religious militias for recruitment. Governors’ relationships with such groups have had a profound impact on violence that escalates long after elections.

In the oil-rich Niger Delta, for example, the political ascendancy of post-1999 governors coincided with the emergence of community groups protesting oil pollution and federal marginalization. The governors of the Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers states recruited directly from these groups ahead of the 2003 and 2007 elections, arming them to intimidate political opponents. Some of these groups grew into the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and associated camps, which launched a campaign of kidnappings for ransom and bombings of petroleum infrastructure in 2006. In the north-eastern Nigerian state of Borno, the leaders of the Islamic group Boko Haram were recruited by the state governor as political fixers. Over time, the group fell out with their benefactor and transformed into one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world. At different periods since 2010, Boko Haram has controlled vast territories in the Lake Chad Basin—from Nigeria into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. Its violent campaigns and the efforts of the militaries of the four countries in which it operates has led to the killing of over 20,000 people and the displacement of over three million. Despite Nigerian military advances against the militants and claims that Boko Haram factions do not hold any significant territories, the groups have continued to launch deadly attacks against military formations and civilian communities in the weeks leading up to the 2019 elections.

The Main Candidates

Incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari (a military dictator in the 1980s) emerged victorious in the 2015 polls as a candidate of the then-main opposition coalition. His candidacy was bolstered by his austere demeanour and anti-corruption personae—a refreshing contrast to gluttonous politicians who taunt Nigerians with their riches. Buhari had contested and lost the presidency three times before 2015. But in 2015 sections of the powerful political establishment including corrupt defectors from the PDP funded his campaign. His newfound political liaisons that enabled him to win also foreclosed any real possibility of waging an effective anti-corruption battle the moment he assumed the civilian presidency. In practice, his anti-corruption efforts have been tame at best, while his promise to root out the Boko Haram insurgency has not materialized despite advances against the insurgents.

Buhari’s major albatross has been his relative silence on violence by (albeit few) pastoralists from his northern Fulani ethnic group. Ahead of the 2019 elections the organization representing the interests of herders openly endorsed Buhari, who is blamed for inaction on the herder-farmer violence across the country. The overwhelming majority of herders carry out their activities peacefully, continuing age-old nomadic practices. Only a small percentage is involved in the violence. However, there is a belief that those well-armed violent few must have powerful backers. Many regard this election as a referendum on Buhari’s handling of the internecine violence. His main opponent, former vice-president and wealthy businessman Atiku Abubakar, is also a Fulani from the north—which could help to ease post-election tensions.

Abubakar’s campaign depicts their candidate as being on a mission to rescue Nigeria from insecurity and economic hardship, but he has had problems shaking off the toga of corruption and cronyism as a former customs employee who grew stupendously rich in a short period of time. Looking beyond the main candidates, Buhari’s ruling party, the APC, and Abubakar’s PDP have a lot in common. Many party leaders have crossed the floor in the past five years, on a political terrain where power is a game and ideologies count for little. Abubakar was a member of Buhari’s APC until a few months ago. If we look at the performance of Buhari’s APC during the past four years and the PDP’s rule from 1999 to 2015—during which Abubakar was vice-president for eight years—there is little to be excited about in the election. However, with macabre war dances at play the primary test is the very possibility of the politicians managing the elections and the immediate outcome in a way that would sustain the political transition in the near future.

Looking Beyond the 2019 Elections

Apart from Buhari and Abubakar, the presidential race features interesting outsiders such as Omoyele Sowore, the publisher of radical online magazine Sahara Reporters; Kingsley Moghalu, a former official of the Central Bank; and Fela Durotoye, a motivational speaker. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who had been a federal minister and a Vice-President of the World Bank, withdrew from the presidential race only weeks ago. These younger candidates and others emerged to take on the corrupt political establishment and have excited electorates with issue-based campaigns and calls for a paradigm shift in politics. Yet they lack the resources, extensive party structures, and loyalties to pose a significant challenge in 2019. Instead, they offer a vision of what politics should be. There is already a discussion about the 2023 elections among young public intellectuals, and hope for the consolidation of alternative political platforms that could offer real possibilities for change in the years to come.