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.