Foreign Policy Blogs

Nigeria’s Watershed Elections

Goodluck Jonathan with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

Goodluck Jonathan with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

Nigeria, a country of 170 million, spread out in several hundred ethnic groups and split right down the middle between a Christian south and a Muslim north, will head to the polls on Feb. 14 to elect its new president in what promises to be the country’s defining democratic moment. The contest pits incumbent Goodluck Jonathan against Muhammadu Buhari, a military officer who briefly seized power following a coup d’état in the 1980s. So far, the election is too close to call, and tensions are running high as Boko Haram, a nefarious terrorist group, has vowed to retaliate if Jonathan wins a second term. And on Jan. 3, the militants committed their “most horrific act of terrorism yet,” when they razed 16 towns in the country’s north, killing up to 2,000. Will the elections be the tipping point that sends Nigeria over the edge?

Many observers in the West tend to ascribe a common set of realities for all 54 African countries. This one-size-fits-all approach has also permeated the political level, as leaders speak about or are judged for their “Africa policy.” In truth, Africa is a continent that harbors more internal complexities than perhaps any other region in the world. Nigeria is a perfect example. Marred by the colonial legacy left behind by the British Empire, the country has struggled to find a way forward since achieving its vaunted independence in 1960. After 28 years of military rule, interrupted by the civilian presidency of Shehu Shagari in the early 80s, Nigeria initiated a democratic transition in 1998–99.

Traditionally, elections in Nigeria were a formal affair. As part of an unwritten arrangement reached in 1999, the presidency would alternate between a Muslim and a Christian occupant after serving a maximum of two terms. This rather uncommon system represented a compromise meant to appease the otherwise divergent tendencies of the two main religious groups inhabiting the country and ensure that both groups got fair access to the levers of power. Coupled with a federal system of American inspiration that rotates most political functions according to a power-sharing zoning agreement, Nigeria has experienced almost 15 years of political stability in a region otherwise marred by ethnic conflicts and warring factions.

Map of Nigeria - via Wikimedia

Map of Nigeria – via Wikimedia

But the rules of the game suddenly changed in 2010 when then President Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim, died of natural causes while serving his first term. His Christian Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, succeed him and became acting president in May 2010. And in April 2011 Jonathan won snap elections for a four year term by defeating Buhari with 59 percent of the votes. Buhari’s supporters saw Jonathan’s win as a way of bypassing the zoning agreement, and in the wake of the elections, tensions flared up and some 800 people were killed in the ensuing violence. Northern Muslims targeted Christian towns and churches and southern mobs retaliated by setting mosques ablaze in the three-day riot.

No matter the outcome, February’s presidential pole will represent a first in Nigeria’s young democratic history. Why? Because the unwritten power sharing arrangement has finally given way to a nascent true democratic system that relies less on ethnic or religious quotas to function but on the power of the ballot box. Unfortunately, not all elements of Nigeria’s highly complex society seem ready to make this transition. Chief among them are the radical Muslim elements in the country’s north.

Terrorist blackmail

Nigeria, a country with great economic potential thanks to its considerable oil reserves that gave it a seat at the table of oil-rich economies OPEC, has suffered in recent years at the hands of Boko Haram, a terrorist group founded in the country’s north by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002. Since, the group’s actions have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, including the prominent kidnapping of 200 school girls in April 2014 that sparked worldwide outrage and generated the viral #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.

In a bizarre turn of events, the group’s appeal dramatically increased in Nigeria after the 2011 presidential elections. Then, inflammatory comments made by a defeated Buhari, who claimed that the elections were rigged, led to the widespread violence that further accentuated the divide between the Muslim north and the Christian south. It should be noted though that Human Rights Watch deemed the 2011 elections as “among the fairest in Nigeria’s history.” Buhari also warned “If what happened in 2011 should again happen in 2015, by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood” — a metaphor of obvious significance.

Governors from three northern states have already asked Jonathan to deploy extra troops and secure the region to make sure the electoral process will be carried out. Indeed, the February poll will occur under the threat of violence, as the instability from the country’s north propelled by Boko Haram militants could spill over into the political process.

Above all, what Nigeria needs most is to send a strong signal to militants that the federal government and democratic rules will not succumb to the terrorist agenda promoted by Boko Haram. Buhari is shrouded in a romanticized image of a determined leader that, thanks to his military past, would be best equipped to deal with the country’s security threats. But this portrayal sweeps under the carpet the many abuses and human rights violations done under the Buhari regime. Under his infamous Decree 4, borne out of a similar climate of insecurity and fear, Buhari made it a crime for journalists to publish articles that could embarrass or question the reputation of public officials. Journalists were imprisoned and media freedoms were curtailed, before leading to the overthrowing of the Buhari regime.

Now Africa’s largest economy and the continent’s main oil exporter, Nigeria cannot afford to let its fears cloud common sense. Intolerance should not be tackled with more intolerance. Breaking the cycle of violence means cultivating local peace-building, initiatives, strengthening institutions and boosting economic opportunities to prevent further radicalization. In other words, building a stronger, more inclusive democracy.

  • Brylee Beth Walker

    In order to find peace within the Nigerian
    country, they first have to find order within the political system. The fact
    that eight hundred people were killed or murdered because of a presidential
    election shows us how unstable and violent this country can become. To add to
    that, they have terrorist threats, and the terrorist that took the teenage
    girls from the country. These problems need to be made aware globally. I agree
    that the president needs to uplift a strong military presence to combat the
    terroristic threat. Also, the United States should help in any way they can,
    whether that be through funding or sending our own military presence over.

  • Brylee Beth Walker

     It is hard to say whether the U.S. is putting in the effort to help Nigeria and the other African countries facing these terroristic threats. However, we do know that the U.S. uses a very little percent of their foreign aid budget every year. If we dipped into this budget to aid in the situations with priority, who knows what kind of impact we could make.

  • Colette Christine Greene

    “Above all, what Nigeria needs most is to send a strong signal to
    militants that the federal government and democratic rules will not
    succumb to the terrorist agenda promoted by Boko Haram.”
    This quote sums up my feelings for this whole blog. The African government is changing to a full democracy instead of letting religion influence it, and because of the changes occurring Boko Haram is retaliating with violence. They believe that they can control the region and scare it to do whatever it wants, but the nation needs to stay strong and show that violence is not the answer.

  • Colette Christine Greene

    It is awful that so much violence is occurring because of elections. Change is happening in the region and because of it people are resisting and trying to stop the change with violence. I believe we should see Boko Haram as the same level as ISIS because both groups are killing so many innocent people to try to get what they want. Because of this, the United States needs to raise awareness of the issue and we need to find a solution on how to help them.
    It seem that the nation has so much potential to have a strong democracy, but terrorist groups are threatening that and so we should find a way to stop them and let Nigeria flourish.

  • Rick Rein

    It is sad that Nigeria has drifted from its past “election” system and has been replaced. At least in the old system, a compromise was reached between the nations christian and muslim population, as each would rotate leadership of the country. Now that this compromise has been compromised, I fear we will now see an acceleration of radicalization, as each side becomes more extreme if left out of governance. Once people lose their voice within their government the radicalization process becomes much easier, as the disaffected seek to be heard.

  • zulema

    Reading this makes me angry, My sympathy goes to the mothers of the kidnapped girls. I hope they still alive, it’s very difficult to see how a government will allow such tragedy. Perhaps they know something that we don’t, police officers along with militaries may be aware of were the girls may be. Boko
    Haram have ways to manipulate the countries. I have faith in our government soon or later Boko Haram will be another terrorist like El Kaide. Extermination.

  • Migue Garcia

    The situation that Nigeria is facing its extremely hard for the citizens of that country. Nigeria went from a stable way to determine their leaders to a complete chaos in the country. The sad part is that the people who suffer is the innocent civilians in the country. A country with great potential to be a top country in the world because of their natural resources is going downhill due to their ways of handling situation and the lack of action of the government towards the terrorist groups threatening the country. The government should take action towards this terrorist groups and countries like the United States should provide the intelligence of our military to stop this groups. Nigeria is an important country for the United States, it is not convenience for the U.S. government to let terrorist groups take over a country with such potential like Nigeria.

  • zulema

    There still hope in Nigeria, there is a lot of people that want Nigeria to become successful, form the 2011 election to election 2015 it has change. There has been more expectations generated appreciation compare to the election back on 2011, they are Independent elector.There will be many challenges.
    In 2015 and the priority challenges ahead are discussed. Supported by the Ford Foundation, the series bring Nigeria officials, civil society activist, and opinion leaders to Washington, D.C. to engage with U.S. policymakers and Africa experts on how best to ensure that Nigeria’s upcoming elections are peaceful, credible, and free. This first session identifies the big electoral roadblocks to overcome before 2015 and consider what the United States can do to support Nigeria as it enters a pivotal period.