Nigeria’s Uncertain Elections

by Belinda O’Donnell

On Tuesday night, the Africa Discussion Group (ADG) worked to unravel some of the knots in the details of Nigeria’s postponed elections, which President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration has delayed for six weeks.

The decision to put Nigeria’s democratic process on ice is officially attributed to security concerns. In the context of Boko Haram’s insurgency in northern Nigeria, voter disenfranchisement and violence are undoubtedly real threats. Yet the tenuous nature of the claim that a six-week delay can make an impact on a six-year insurgency has led many observers to reframe the shift as something more cynical and anti-democratic.

“Nigerians are politically astute enough to know that the postponement has nothing to do with security. It is a flailing act of desperation from an incumbent terrified of losing,” said Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her commentary on the delay.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will face high barriers in using these six weeks to make gains in what is shaping up to be Nigeria’s closest election since military rule drew to a close in 1999.

One member of YPFP’s Africa Discussion Group with personal ties to Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, suggested that if Nigeria’s opposition candidate General Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress have the momentum to win the 2015 elections, an extra month and a half of campaigning will only allow Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP to “shift” a loss from February to March, rather than change the outcome of the 2015 election entirely.

Nigeria’s 2015 elections are significant in a multiplicity of ways that are easy to overlook. The Africa Discussion Group emphasized that this is the first election where Nigerian voters will go to the polls with biometric Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs), which make stuffing ballot boxes or duplicating votes significantly harder.

These voter cards, which look something like U.S. driver’s licenses, are one of the central features of this process, as Nigeria does not allow anyone to cast a ballot without one. Because of concerns over the integrity of national polling, absentee voting is not an option either.  In this context, the Jonathan administration is particularly sensitive to the low distribution rates of the PVCs to southern states, whose inclusion in the process will be essential to keeping the PDP in power.

The Africa Discussion Group covered another under-illuminated aspect of these elections: the contentious nature of General Buhari as a potential president. Any representation of Buhari as a force for change in Nigeria must work to obscure or at least downplay his record of brutality during his previous twenty-month sojourn as a military ruler before Nigeria’s democratic shift.

Both candidates will pose challenges to democratic governance in Nigeria. As Alfreda Nwosu, a member of the Africa Discussion Group, emphasized, Nigeria is a country of 175 million people still improvising what it means to be a part of a complex and counter-intuitive post-colonial state. A key challenge for addressing the Boko Haram threat in the north has been the distance of Nigerians in other regions who are occupied with their own daily challenges, and who often see Boko Haram as somewhat outside their sphere of immediate concern.

In the coming weeks, Boko Haram will face an offensive from a scaled-up Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), including highly mobile and well-equipped fighters from Chad, and motivated forces from Cameroon and Niger who will be acutely aware that their borders with northern Nigeria leave them vulnerable.

Increased efforts by the MNJTF are unlikely to be decisive against Boko Haram. This is not the kind of insurgency that can be subdued by razing scores of young men to the ground. Any enduring solution to the Boko Haram threat will involve credible efforts to address the asymmetric nature of public service provision and opportunity in Nigeria’s north. It is highly unlikely that these enduring challenges will see any transformation in the month-and-a-half delay announced last week.

What happens in the next six weeks is critical to ensuring that Nigeria’s democracy is not put on ice indefinitely. Questions need to be answered: What happens if Nigeria is still facing the same level of security threats on March 28th that it is now? How will a country with a traditionally fraught relationship between civilians and the military tackle issues of security and democratization under duress? How can Nigeria renegotiate the relationship between the north and the south to realize its vision of itself as Africa’s anchor state?

One thing is for certain: the world will be watching when Nigerians finally head to the polls.

Belinda O’Donnell is a researcher and writer with a focus on African security and conflict dynamics in the Horn of Africa. You can find her on Twitter via @brjodonnell.