Nigeria’s Unlikely Election: The Road Ahead

The 2015 presidential elections were a truly historic moment for Nigeria. Here are some of the challenges that lie ahead for president-elect Buhari.

Although the Nigerian presidential campaigns were only formally launched in November 2014, we have been awaiting the recent presidential elections for much longer. It all begun roughly two years ago when speculation over whether President Goodluck Jonathan would seek reelection sparked controversy. Now, almost anti-climatically, the wait is over: with a lead of 2.5 million votes, APC candidate and retired general Muhammadu Buhari has won the race.

Perhaps more smoothly than many of us had expected, the elections have taken place in a manner that highlights the Nigerian people’s commitment to the democratic process. There were a few practical hiccups on election day, with people having to wait hours to cast their votes, not to mention the not-inconsequential matter of the six week postponement. The latter was announced on security grounds, but the possibility that this was just an excuse by the ruling party to buy time to improve its ratings and discredit opposition candidate Buhari crossed more than one mind. It also raised questions over the impartiality of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which had capitulated to pressure from the military establishment.

But aside from the above, the results are out and the elections are deemed to have been free and fair. INEC’s Chairman Attahiru Jega has caused us much trepidation, but at the end of a painful two-day wait (30-31 March), every single state revealed its preference, bringing to an end not only Jonathan’s presidential career but, more importantly, the People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) sixteen-year reign. Come 29 May, the day when President-elect Buhari is scheduled to take office, we will no longer talk of ‘the ruling PDP’. This will be a truly historic moment for Nigeria.

Even those who are less enamored with Jonathan have given credit to him for conceding defeat at a time when many observers were betting that whoever lost would at the very least denounce the process as fraudulent and demand a recount. By accepting the result, Jonathan has put Nigeria first. But these remain delicate times. Other elements within the party may put forward legal challenges as the prospect of power shifting to the predominantly Muslim north (Buhari’s area of provenance) might threaten their own interests. Jonathan ought to encourage restraint. Indeed, his role will continue beyond the transition period. As a former head of state, he will automatically be part of the Council of State and thus retain influence. Former Nigerian Presidents do not fade into the background but remain very much public figures capable of influencing decision making and public opinion.

This hints at one of the many challenges facing the new administration. Buhari has been clear that no ethnic group or state will be given preferential treatment. Yet in Nigeria identity politics has become institutionalised and parties appear to be built around regional, ethnic and religious identities more than political programmes. It will be difficult to move away from this now consolidated practice; it will require a significant cultural shift.

A second challenge will be working together as a unified All Progressives Congress (APC). The party is an umbrella coalition established in 2013 through the merging of the five top opposition parties with the goal of finally defeating the PDP. Joining forces has given the opposition new strength and is arguably one of the factors that made victory possible. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that very different ideologies coexist within the APC and that many of the votes cast in favour of Buhari were more representative of anti-Jonathan sentiments than of genuine support for the APC.

The third challenge, and one that surely ranks high on the priority scale, relates to the security situation. Buhari has vowed to show Boko Haram ‘the strength of our collective will’ and to ‘spare no effort until we defeat terrorism’. Buhari is unlikely to neglect the north—one of the criticisms often levelled against Jonathan—and many are hopeful that the combination of a military background and his own position as a northerner will herald a different and more effective approach. Yet expectations should also be managed, for the restoration of peace will not be an easy undertaking. First, the mishandling of Boko Haram by previous administrations has allowed the insurgency to effectively spiral out of control and establish deep roots. Second, Buhari will be under lots of pressure to deliver results. A military surge is the most likely approach, chosen in order to produce quick and tangible results that can be paraded before the electorate. Human rights abuses at the hands of the security forces may increase and evidence shows this can be extremely counterproductive in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign, not mention unlawful. Third, reconciling the military approach with long-term re-engagement and economic rejuvenation initiatives in the north will be a challenge. These are essential and very much linked to the emergence and endurance of Boko Haram and earlier violent extremist movements that have plagued northern Nigeria for the past few decades.

Regrettably Boko Haram is not the only security challenge facing the country. But some, such as in the Niger Delta, are more pressing than others. Niger Delta militants had issued an open threat declaring themselves ready to resume high-level violence in the case of Buhari’s victory. It is hard to say whether they will act upon this threat as, at present, they seem to be going through a reflective phase, but the situation in the Niger Delta is already of concern. 2014 saw a rise in abductions allegedly linked to the frustration of local communities over the environmental damage and unequal distribution of wealth associated with the Niger Delta’s oil industry. With weak security, corruption and high unemployment rates in the region, a continuation on this trend is to be expected.

In addition, it remains unclear what will happen to the Niger Delta amnesty programme that has been running—at very high costs—since 2009. The controversial programme, which consists of monthly payments disbursed to former militants who promise not to engage in violence and attend training, is scheduled to end this year. There are expectations that it will be extended by two years, arguably for fear of retaliation if the payments were to stop (past delays had resulted in attacks against oil installations). If Buhari is truly determined to cut costs and fight corruption he will have to look into the amnesty arrangement and possibly put an end to it, but at what cost to the security of the Niger Delta?

This list of challenges is far from exhaustive. Economists would point out that low oil prices continue to be a problem for a country reliant on oil revenues for 70-80 per cent of its GDP, and that this will greatly reduce the resources available to Buhari for the development and implementation of a reformist agenda. On the other hand, the oil price drop may make it easier to promote economic diversification away from the oil industry.

Buhari has won promising reform, and his reputation as incorruptible certainly plays in his favour. The elections themselves have helped to consolidate democratic values. But we should remain cautious about how much change can realistically be expected and remember that when Buhari was in power in 1984-1985—which he had seized through a coup—his war on indiscipline and corruption was accompanied by brutality, human rights abuses and restrictions on the media. Ends do not always justify means. Times are different now, but impunity remains. Let’s hope that the desire to meet expectations and show results will not come at the expense of the already weakened social contract between the Nigerian people and the State.

Virginia Comolli is the Research Fellow for Security and Development at The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, and author of Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency.


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