As Nigerians head to the polls in less than two weeks for national elections, the press is warning of dire scenarios. A recent Washington Post editorial cautions of an “explosive general-election season.” Some have even raised the possibility of a break-up of the Nigerian state. These fears are not without justification; the two main candidates represent rival geographic and religious segments of the population, Boko Haram’s terror spree continues unabated in the North, and low oil prices threaten government revenues.
But it’s far-fetched to expect monumental changes to the Nigerian system. The elections certainly will be contentious and most likely violent, but no matter who wins, the underlying political, historical, and economic drivers point toward more of the same in Nigeria—for better and for worse.
The February 14 elections (to be followed by state elections two weeks later) pit an unpopular incumbent against a veteran opposition leader. President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria representing the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has been a controversial figure since he inherited the highest office from Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim who died in office in 2010. Because an informal power-sharing agreement within the PDP dictates that the presidency rotates between a northern Muslim and a southern Christian, many Nigerian Muslims were infuriated that their President had served for less than the two possible terms. They were even more enraged when Jonathan ran for re-election in 2011. Jonathan’s opponent for a second consecutive election is Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim from the All Progressives Congress (APC). Buhari was the country’s military ruler from 1983–85 and ran for President in 2003, 2007, and 2011. The APC is a newly formed political alliance of the four largest opposition parties, some of which supported Jonathan and the PDP in the last election.
There are many daunting election-related challenges in the coming months, not the least of which is security. Ongoing violence related to Boko Haram in three northeastern states has wreaked havoc, and although the electoral commission announced it will open polling stations there, nobody knows where and how this will be done. What observers do know is that those three states, which favor Buhari, will be extremely underrepresented when the final votes are tallied.
Logistical problems beset the rest of the country as well. The government is introducing biometric voter ID cards, which in theory are a requirement to vote, but by mid-January 15 million Nigerians (about 22 percent of eligible voters) had not received their new cards. And because Nigerians also can only vote where they are registered, up to three million displaced Nigerians, also likely supporters of Buhari, may not vote.
All of these concerns are compounded by a population that has little faith in the electoral system and government. A Gallup poll from mid-2014 showed that only 13 percent of Nigerians had confidence in the honesty of the elections, compared to 51 percent confidence in 2011. Eighty-six percent believed corruption is widespread in Nigeria’s government. And discontent will likely turn to violence in some areas. In early January, the Washington Post reported “an unprecedented influx of illegal arms” in the Niger Delta and Northeast, ostensibly distributed to local supporters by politicians.
But one must remember that instability of this kind is not new to Nigeria. In 1914, the British consolidated the diverse northern and southern areas of the region into one protectorate, amalgamating numerous ethnic groups and creating the boundaries for the modern state. In 1967, seven years after independence, the nation experienced civil war, ushering in decades of intermittent military rule, instability, war, coups, and assassinations. During this time, political leaders established traditions of ethnic-based patronage and kleptocracy. For example, former Nigerian President Sani Abacha reportedly stole more than $3 billion from the state during the 1990s.
Even after a return to democracy in 1999, politics in the country have been characterized by corruption and a lack of accountability. Elections have historically been marred by bloodshed. The 2007 elections marked the first time a civilian replaced another civilian President, but the results were highly controversial. International observers roundly criticized the process, citing vote rigging and intimidation, and in the days afterward an estimated 800 were killed and 65,000 displaced.
Despite political turbulence, Nigeria’s economy has largely performed well in recent years, particularly in the South. With GDP totaling $509 billion, Nigeria’s economy is now the largest in Africa and the 26th largest in the world, and the oil-dominated economy is beginning to diversify. The country’s retail, telecommunications, and manufacturing sectors have recently grown significantly, and the oil industry now comprises only 14 percent of the economy according to the Wall Street Journal. Since 2007, Nigeria has been the largest destination for foreign direct investment in Africa. A 2014 Ernst & Young survey named Nigeria the second most attractive Sub-Saharan African country for foreign investment; Nissan, General Electric, and Proctor & Gamble are all making significant investments in the country.
Yet the economic outlook is uncertain. While growth was 7 percent per year over the past decade, the World Bank estimates that in recent years (2010–13) that figure has slipped to 5 percent, and 60 percent of the population is still below the poverty line. Unemployment is high, particularly among youth. Nigeria’s currency (the naira) recently reached an all-time low, having lost nearly 16 percent of its value in the past three months. Although the economy is diversifying, it is still vulnerable to fluctuations in oil price. Oil revenue accounts for 80 percent of government revenue, and the overall economy has lost $40 billion in value as a result of the falling oil price and the currency woes that go with that.
The confluence of economic, political, and security events has pundits flummoxed when it comes to predicting the results of the presidential election. Most maintain that, for all the challenges he faces, Jonathan is still likely to pull off a victory. Certainly, Jonathan enjoys a distinct advantage: He controls the government apparatus and has significant sums to spend, even with the hit those resources have taken due to declining oil prices. Running on a record of steady economic growth, the PDP has won every election since 1999. The combination of capital and patronage gives the incumbent the upper hand.
But some say the scales are tipping toward Buhari. Critics have rallied around the fact that Jonathan has been unable to reign in massive corruption and has been exposed as completely ineffective in dealing with Boko Haram. Next month’s election marks the first time in history that only two parties are running for the presidency. Emboldened by a fragmenting PDP, the APC opposition is posing the first credible threat to the ruling party in 16 years. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the godfather of the PDP, publicly criticized Jonathan for running again, saying he has “failed Nigeria in his performance.”
In response, Jonathan has made several desperate attempts to showcase accomplishments in recent months. For example, his government announced a peace deal with Boko Haram in October 2014 that lacked any basis in reality. More recently, the government has decreased gas prices across the country in another last-gasp move.
With or without a runoff, one can expect unrest in the immediate aftermath of the election. With voter IDs and IDPs, half of the population will have a legitimate claim to reject the results, and they will take to the streets and courts. Although state-level wins by some parties might help appease certain segments of the population, the 2011 elections set a dangerous precedent. The political, social, and economic stresses on the system are greater than they were four years ago; 2015 is likely to be defined by turbulence and violence.
But if history is any guide, the unrest will subside. And regardless of which candidate takes office, Nigeria’s fundamental security, economic, and political drivers will still be in place. A Buhari victory might provide the most benefit in terms of security issues, given his military background and the credibility he would have with Nigerian military leaders. But without an internationally coordinated military effort combined with a national policy to address underlying social problems, it is unlikely Nigeria can meet the challenge of Boko Haram.
Whoever leads Nigeria, we can expect the economy to weather the storm and continue to diversify and attract foreign investment. Leaders from both parties must govern within a system that serves a political class—a class that has historically found a way to share just enough power to maintain control and amass personal wealth. Don’t expect the elections to change these fundamental realities.