Nigeria’s Unexpected Election Success
Nigeria’s Unexpected Election Success
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Supporters of the presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressive Congress (APC) party celebrate in Kano. 31 March 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa 5 minutes

Nigeria’s Unexpected Election Success

Crisis Group followed Nigeria’s 28 March presidential elections from Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt. Nnamdi Obasi, Nigeria Senior Analyst, discusses the impact of the historic polls, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s challenges and the reactions in the Niger Delta.

Crisis Group: What is the importance of Nigeria’s smooth democratic transition?

Nnamdi Obasi: President Goodluck Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat marks one of the few cases in which an incumbent has been unseated by a challenger in the electoral history of Africa. As the largest democracy in Africa, in a continent where leaders often refuse to leave office, Jonathan’s acceptance of defeat and willingness to step down sends a new message that governments can be changed constitutionally and peacefully through the ballot. These elections have improved Nigeria’s democratic credentials; it is vital that the country continues along this positive path for the governorship and state assemblies’ votes on 11 April.

Why did Muhammadu Buhari win Nigeria’s presidential election?

Most Nigerians, and especially the country’s youth, wanted a change.

Firstly, President Jonathan and his party – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in power since 1999 – were criticised for their failure to improve livelihoods, beat the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency or curb corruption in government.

Secondly, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) leveraged the first successful merger of the country’s major opposition parties into an unprecedented challenge to the ruling PDP. Five PDP governors defected to the APC in November 2013, and he garnered support in several southern states where he had never won in previous polls. His running mate, law Professor Yemi Osinbajo,a highly regarded Christian from Lagos state in the south, helped curb fears of his strongly Islamic leanings and improved his acceptability to some Christians.

Thirdly, Buhari, from Katsina state in the far north, has a massive following in northern states. Many in the region felt they had been largely denied the presidential office since the return to democratic rule in 1999 (save for the three years of then ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua).

There were many warnings of almost inevitable violence in and after the election. What happened to change the situation?

The election was not entirely free from violence. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) says election-related violence killed 58 people over the six weeks between December 2014 and 8 February 2015. NHRC also reports at least 50 people were killed across nine of the country’s 36 states on election day and the day after, and many fights broke out between supporters of the major parties.

Still, concerted pleas, warnings, and pressure from civil society, national and international actors are the principle reason why Nigeria avoided the larger scale violence that many had feared. These interventions ranged from entreaties to the candidates and parties to more vigilant monitoring of the entire electoral process by local civil society groups and a record number of foreign observer missions.

Most notably, on 14 January, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan brought Jonathan, Buhari and other presidential candidates together in Abuja to publicly pledge non-violence before, during and after the polls; on 25 January, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visited Nigeria, urging peaceful elections; on 8 and 9 March, former South African President Thabo Mbeki and one of Nigeria’s former military leaders, General Abdusalami Abubakar, met with Jonathan and Buhari separately, urging respect for the outcome of the elections. On 2 February, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had warned that instigators of violence around the polls would be liable to prosecution. On 26 March, the National Peace Committee for the elections again brought Jonathan and Buhari together to pledge peaceful polls.

Violence was also limited by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) reforms. More credible voting was ensured by more transparent collation of results and new voter checking machines, even if the latter were marred by technical hitches and human errors. Popular confidence in the impartiality of the INEC helmsman, Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, lent greater legitimacy to the results.

President Jonathan’s insistence that his political ambitions was not worth the blood of any Nigerian, and his early concession of defeat, helped to douse the violent protests that could have erupted in his Niger Delta home zone after the results were announced.

What are the biggest challenges President-elect Buhari will face in the office?

The election polarised the country along regional and religious lines, so he faces many immediate challenges. In particular, he must pacify the oil-rich Niger Delta, where many feel aggrieved that the region’s first-ever president (Jonathan) was voted out after only one term.

Nigeria’s poor fiscal health will make it difficult for him to meet high expectations for economic and social development, including improved electricity supplies and job opportunities. Government revenues have been depleted by massive spending on the elections, and petroleum revenues slumped from $45 billion in 2011 to $32.3 billion last year.

Buhari will also have to wage a vigorous fight against corruption and economic crime, particularly the haemorrhaging theft of crude oil that has hurt the economy significantly over the years (Chief of Naval Staff Vice Admiral Usman Jibrin, recently said oil theft costs the country 433 billion naira annually, or about $2.18 billion).

How much might Buhari’s strategy for fighting Boko Haram differ from the current one?

Buhari’s military background was a key pillar of his campaign. Being a Muslim from the far north, he may find more support against Boko Haram’s Islamic insurgents from religious, ethnic and community leaders in that region.

In his first post-election statement on 1 April, Buhari assured Nigerians that “Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror and bring back peace. We shall spare no effort until we defeat terrorism”. However, as Crisis Group has pointed out, to succeed in improving security nationwide, Buhari will also need to reform the military and improve rule of law institutions.

What has been the reaction in Jonathan’s Niger Delta home region?

Jonathan’s early acceptance of defeat defused potential protests. The reaction for now is largely one of sober resignation to reality. One PDP youth leader in Port Harcourt asked Crisis Group: “Why do we have to go and fight for a man who has himself said he is not ready to fight?”

The Ijaw National Congress, apex body of the Ijaw – largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta – has commended Jonathan for his statesmanship and significantly also congratulated Buhari, wishing him “divine wisdom and courage to lead our dear Nigeria into a new era of peace and broadly shared prosperity”. The rump of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said Nigerians “made the right choice” in electing Buhari and has also lauded Jonathan for “setting precedent as the first ever incumbent Nigerian president to be defeated and concede defeat, without any interference”.

Still, local tensions continue to build ahead of governorship elections scheduled for 11 April. Security forces have been on alert and a dusk-to-dawn curfew continued several days after the elections in Port Harcourt, the region’s largest city and capital of Rivers state, which suffered badly from pre-election violence.

There are fears that Jonathan’s defeat could re-ignite an insurgency that tormented the region from 2006 to 2009. Ominously, the militant Niger Delta People Volunteer Force (NDPVF), which has mutated into the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front (NDPSF), described Buhari’s victory as a conspiracy of the northerners and the Yoruba (in the south west) against the peoples of the Niger Delta, South East and Middle Belt. A statement by the group on 1 April said Buhari’s victory is “a historical reminder that we (Niger Delta) are a conquered people who are mere appendages existing at the pleasure of the supremacists and the regional overlords …. The days coming will be critical”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.