The jihadist insurgency is still wreaking havoc in parts of Nigeria, with new security threats looming on the horizon. Yet voters in Africa’s most populous country made corruption and the state of the economy their priorities at the ballot box.
In February and March, Nigeria held its general elections where it elected a new president, 29 state governors and over a thousand legislators at federal and state levels. This election was its fifth since the country returned to democracy in 1999, after military dictator Sani Abacha suddenly died the year earlier and his successor fast-tracked the democratic transition.
Although there were 72 presidential candidates on the ballot for this year’s election, it was in reality a two-horse race between the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, a former Head of State of the ruling All Progressives’ Congress (APC), against Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), who was Nigeria’s Vice President from 1999 until 2007.
While on the surface, Nigerian political parties are barely distinguishable on the basis of ideology, the two candidates offered starkly different ideologies which are more reflective of their personal beliefs than those of the parties on whose platforms they ran on: President Buhari’s emphasized his administration’s efforts to fight corruption and block revenue leakages and welfarist programs such as those that pay unemployed young Nigerians a monthly stipend, give soft loans to farmers and traders, carry out conditional cash transfer schemes and school feeding programs.
The greater focus on the economy by both leading candidates is in stark contrast to the defining issue of the 2015
Abubakar, on the other hand, offered a more market-driven approach to reviving an economy that had gone into a recession in 2016 and has seen unemployment rate rise from 10.4% in 2016 to 23.1% by the third quarter of 2018 – his proposed solutions included floating the national currency, the Naira, which the Central Bank of Nigeria has adopted numerous policies in order to ‘defend’ it against the downward slide – the Naira has lost about 50% of its value compared to the dollar since 2015; privatizing the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which has been criticized for being a loss-making company and is seen as riddled with corruption; and had pledged to create a minimum of 2.5 million jobs in the first two years of his administration.
The greater focus on the economy by both leading candidates is in stark contrast to the defining issue of the 2015 elections when President Buhari defeated then-incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, the first win by an opposition party in Nigeria. Then, the key issue in the election was the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-Eastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa which at its height had the terrorist group occupying territory estimated to be the size of Belgium, and has led to the deaths of about 37, 530 people and the displacement of 2.4 million people.
However, another huge determining factor in the 2015 elections was the insistence of former President Jonathan to run, against the unwritten agreement of his party, the PDP, to rotate the presidency between the North and the South – he was the Vice-President until May 2010 when the then President, Umaru Yar’adua, died after a protracted illness, and he then went on to win the 2011 elections against candidate Buhari who was on his third presidential run then.
There have also been the internecine clashes between nomadic herdsmen and sedentary farming communities across vast swathes of the country’s Middle Belt, which is also its major food-producing region
Jonathan’s insistence to run for a second term caused a splinter within his party with many northern politicians, including Atiku, deciding to leave and join the All Progressives’ Congress which was newly formed from a merger of three regional parties in order to be able to challenge for power at the centre.
The elections which was tension-filled amidst fears of election violence was unprecedented not just because of the win of an opposition party, but because Jonathan conceded defeat even before the official announcement of the results.
The security challenges that existed in 2015 still persist today, as well as the emergence of new ones: although Boko Haram no longer holds territory (which the government uses it to justify its claim that it has been “technically defeated”), it still has the potential to wreak havoc, along with its splinter faction, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) which is affiliated to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They have continued to launch attacks on military bases, communities and travelers in the northern parts of Borno and Yobe States, which are around the Lake Chad Basin. They have also abducted villagers and travellers, often using them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the government for the release of their members.
There have also been the internecine clashes between nomadic herdsmen and sedentary farming communities across vast swathes of the country’s Middle Belt, which is also its major food-producing region. These conflicts, which are over land and water resources, have gone on in one form or the other for decades, but have intensified over the past decade as climate change and increases in population have increased the competition. However, owing to the fact that the herdsmen are mostly Fulani Muslims and the farming communities from other ethnic groups and non-Muslim, it has further complicated the conflict. There has also been very poor handling of the conflict by the government with many perceiving President Buhari as being biased towards the herdsmen due to a shared ethnicity.
The past four years has also seen the emergence of new security challenges: the resurgence of separatist agitations for Biafra in the south-eastern part of the country which led to deadly clashes with the military; clashes between security agents and members of the Islamic Movement, a Shia group that has been protesting the detention of its leader, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, since December 2015 after an attack on the group by the Nigerian Army which left 400 of its members killed; and incessant killings in parts of the North-West by numerous armed gangs or bandits, accompanied by kidnappings of villagers and travellers along highways in the region for ransom.
Buhari and his party focused on their social welfare programs and fight against corruption, using Abubakar as a poster child
Of these three newly emergent conflicts, the killings in the North-West has the biggest potential of becoming a conflagration – the killings, which have been predominantly in Zamfara State, have led to an emptying out of numerous villages and towns, and could worsen Nigeria’s numbers of internally displaced persons. There are risks that the killings could spread into the rural parts of neighbouring Sokoto, Kebbi and parts of Kaduna States which has a combined area of close to 100,000 square kilometres, or about same size as Portugal. Such a spread will create a situation similar to that of the Lake Chad Basin and Boko Haram, where there is a mass exodus from the rural areas into the bigger towns in the region, increasing competition for resources; and turning the areas stateless, where they are neither held by the insurgents nor fully under the control of the state.
There is yet to be a huge media spotlight on the killings, especially in the international press, mainly due to the lack of understanding of the conflict, especially in terms of knowing the main actors and their motivations. Also, the government response to it has been weak and uncoordinated – besides announcements of a few military deployments to the region, the killings do not elicit comments or statements from the government.
The security challenge in the North-West does not seem to have any regional impact currently, although a reporter, Ahmad Salkida, who is inarguably Nigeria’s most knowledgeable journalist on Boko Haram, has claimed that members of Ansaru, a previous splinter group of Boko Haram, are part of the gangs roaming the region. If this is true, it could then have wider implications due to previous links between Ansaru and armed groups in the Sahel region such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Africa (MUJWA) and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).
Despite these security challenges, they were not on the front-burner in the 2019 elections: President Buhari and his party focused on their social welfare programs and fight against corruption, using Abubakar as a poster child, as he has been dogged by allegations of corruption from his time as Vice President; Abubakar, on the other hand, tried to turn it into a referendum on President Buhari’s less-than-stellar performance managing the economy which has a GDP 22% smaller than when he inherited it in 2015.
The results of the elections showed a clear contrast in how the candidates were accepted across the country
The 2019 election was remarkably less tense largely due to the fact that both leading candidates are Northern Muslims of the same Fulani ethnicity. However, the results of the elections showed a clear contrast in how the candidates were accepted across the country, especially when analysed from the perspective of the six geo-political zones that Nigeria is unofficially divided into.
President Buhari retained his core support in the North, with an average of 70% of the vote in the North-West which has the highest number of registered voters in the country, and in the North-East where the Boko Haram insurgency still rages on; and about 50% of the votes in the battleground zone of the South-West which has the second highest number of voters.
Abubakar, on the other hand, won handily in the South-South and South-East regions – however, these two regions have the third lowest and lowest voting populations and lower voter turnouts than the national average. Also, he performed less than expected in the North-Central where he won two states, and did not do much in chipping away President Buhari’s core support. These contributed to handing President Buhari a win with a margin of almost 4 million, even higher than his 2015 winning margin of about 2.5 million votes.
Unsurprisingly, Abubakar and his party, the PDP are challenging the results of the election in court as they allege that there were widespread irregularities such as violence, rigging, deliberate voter suppression in their strongholds and what they consider unreasonably high turnouts in Borno and Yobe, the two states that Boko Haram is still active and even carried out attacks on the day of the election.
While most election observers agree that there were systemic problems with the conduct of the elections, it is very unlikely that Abubakar and the PDP will be able to prove their case in court and obtain a victory. This is not just because of a lack of a precedent for this in Nigeria’s history, but also because their allegations seem to be based on conjecture.
The next four years will be very critical in how the opposition strengthens itself to challenging the APC at the next polls, especially in a political culture where politicians change membership of parties regularly and fluidly, often to benefit from the patronage and rent-seeking that the political system is built on
It is most likely that the biggest effect their challenge to the results will achieve will be to galvanize the political class to undertake reforms to the electoral process, most notably convincing President Buhari to assent to an amendment to the major law guiding the conduct of elections in Nigeria – he had rejected the bill three times, claiming on the third occasion that it was too close to the elections and would have disrupted the preparations. Commentators say that the amendment to the law would have prevented many of the irregularities in the elections and made its conduct smoother and more transparent.
It is very unlikely that the disputing of the elections by the PDP and its candidate will lead to an outbreak of violence, or an intensifying of the current insecurity challenges. It also remains to be seen how the PDP and other parties will build a formidable opposition to the ruling APC, which also has 208 out of 360 House of Representatives seats, 65 out of 109 Senate seats and 18 out of 36 governorship seats.
The next four years will be very critical in how the opposition strengthens itself to challenging the APC at the next polls, especially in a political culture where politicians change membership of parties regularly and fluidly, often to benefit from the patronage and rent-seeking that the political system is built on.
It is also unlikely that there will be major policy shifts from the administration, whether in terms of economy or security. On the economic front, the government’s monetary policies will likely continue in order to save the value of the Naira, as well as budget deficits remaining high in order to keep the government running while continuing with its socialist programs. Government revenues will still be heavily anchored on crude oil sales and it will continue to hope for an increase in the price of oil; however, it will still remain vulnerable to price shocks which largely contributed to its recession in 2016.
The unofficial policy of the Nigerian State seems to be to contain security challenges rather than eliminating them
Barring any large-scale successes by Boko Haram and ISWAP, such as a major attack in Maiduguri, its former stronghold, there might continue to be a lack of zeal and political will in adopting a strategy that will finally crush them. There have been persistent complaints from the rank-and-file of the military about poor equipment and low morale which has contributed to a string of losses against the terrorist groups.
There is no indication of a cogent strategy to deal with the other security challenges, especially in identifying and solving the remote crisis. The unofficial policy of the Nigerian State seems to be to contain security challenges rather than eliminating them, which means that the underlying causes still exist and could cause the conflicts to erupt again in the future.
It is unlikely that there will be significant shifts in the policy directions of the Nigerian government under President Buhari. While this is heart-warming for investors who desire the stability of current policies, it also dampens the confidence of those who have been expectant of a new direction, particularly in terms of economic and monetary policies.
Also, despite the fact that the government got into open tiffs with Western countries over what they perceived as support for Abubakar, it is unlikely that this will lead to a freeze in relations. It will continue to cooperate with Western allies on economic and security issues.
It awaits to be seen what political events within and outside Nigeria could force it to move in a new direction; but for now, the status quo is most likely to remain.