Nigeria: Politics at a Pivotal Moment

Nigerians queue to vote in nationwide governor and state elections in Lagos in 2007.
14 March 2011
guest column

Washington, DC — The approach of elections next month in Nigeria has raised hopes and apprehension in almost equal measure.

In a dozen years of civilian rule, Nigerians have endured a string of votes of deteriorating quality and credibility. The last polls, in 2007, showed signs of entrenching a dominant party regime that exhibits uncertain leadership and little accountability.

Sporadic conflict, economic uncertainty and an extended political-succession crisis fostered serious concerns about the direction of the country.

Optimists fastened on Nigeria's resilience, resources, and a tenuous legacy of reform. Pessimists have emphasized the country's social fissures, profound inequities, weak institutions and recurring social violence.

The politics of the current electoral season pose new possibilities along with substantial risks. President Goodluck Jonathan's promises of electoral reform, backed by fresh leadership at the country's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), have lifted expectations for greater competition and transparency.

The political field is crowded with rivals within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), as well as prominent challengers in opposition parties. Having secured the PDP nomination, the president will enjoy the advantages of incumbency that will likely favor him in the general election.

However, the governing party could lose ground in legislative and state polls. It remains to be seen whether the political establishment – many of whom are focused on political spoils and schooled in the manipulation of elections – will engage in fair competition.

Integrity of Polls an Issue

Regardless of the outcome, the popular validity of the election process will substantially influence Nigeria's prospects during the next administration.

A legacy of electoral misconduct, eroded legitimacy and weakened governance shadows the nation's politics. Another troubled political season could seriously impede the nation's progress.

The administration to be inaugurated in May will face economic volatility, chronic problems of infrastructure, regional militancy and communal conflict. Legitimate leadership, at the center and in the localities, would be in a better position to meet these challenges.

Should the elections be tainted by misconduct and violence, the emerging government will have to contend with deficits of legitimacy and local restiveness. However, if the upcoming polls are orderly and the results widely accepted, Nigeria's fledgling democracy could benefit from a reservoir of popular support.

High Stakes

The stakes in the 2011 elections extend well beyond the immediate contest of personalities and party factions.

All of Nigeria's post-independence elections have been problematic. Two previous civilian administrations - the First Republic in 1966 and the Second Republic in 1983 – failed in the wake of contested elections. Despite a credible presidential poll in June 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the results and the Third Republic was stillborn.

Since the inauguration of a Fourth Republic in 1999, elections have been marred by disarray, fraud and violence. Domestic and international observers deemed the transitional elections acceptable though flawed. The urgency of ushering in a civilian regime took priority over niceties of procedure.

Against hopes that the 2003 polls would be an improvement over the previous cycle,  those elections turned out to be markedly worse. Various observers and the Nigerian media documented widespread misconduct, falsification of results, violence and intimidation.

The ruling PDP increased its majority in the legislature and its control of the states, though many areas scarcely had recognizable elections. The discouraging trend prompted many calls for electoral reform, including some from within the PDP.

The 2007 cycle, however, defined a nadir in the country's elections. Amidst chaotic preparations, registration lists were absent or inaccurate, ballots were delivered late or not at all, voters stayed away from fear or apathy, and ballot boxes were alternately stuffed or carried off. Much of the counting was conducted in secret, and results were posted in summary form that prevented verification.

Critics accused INEC, under its chairman, Maurice Iwu, of organizing elections that were "programmed to fail" in line with guidance from political barons. While misconduct was evidently widespread, political incumbents had unquestioned advantage.

The ruling party's candidate, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, garnered an implausible 70 percent majority, while the party again accumulated governorships and assembly seats. More than 300 people died during the election period, and observers largely questioned the validity of the polls.

The balloting was trailed by a stream of court challenges to state and national results. Many commentators suggested that a political oligarchy was quickly consolidating its dominance. This view was somewhat offset by the inclusive nature of the PDP, which had national presence, ethnically diverse leadership, and an informal principal of power sharing, known as "zoning," that called for alternation of major offices among candidates from different regions.

President Yar'Adua, from the northwestern state of Katsina, succeeded two-term President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the southwest. Yar'Adua's ticket was balanced with Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who hailed from Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta to the south. Despite the election woes, the new administration was accepted by many Nigerians, who saw Yar'Adua as an honest individual and hoped for improvements in governance.

Security Challenges

Such hopes were largely unfulfilled as the government grappled with significant problems, including a rapidly deteriorating security situation.

Insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta intensified, reflecting deep-seated community grievances mingled with economic agendas. By 2008, nearly half of Nigeria's oil production was shuttered by militant activities, while theft siphoned further revenues.

Armed Islamist groups at odds with the political establishment emerged as a looming threat in northern states. Variously dubbed Boko Haram, Kala Kato, and Taleban – some groups comprising a few dozen people, others with members in the thousands – these sects clashed with security forces in several incidents across the region.

The diverse, middle-belt city of Jos, where ethnic and religious groups regularly clashed over land and economic rights, became another center of tension. Amid communal conflicts, the death toll climbed into the thousands.

Economic Shocks

The government attempted to address large-scale fraud and insolvency in the banking system, appointing an energetic new Central Bank Governor, Lamido Sunusi, who sought far-reaching reforms.

But the global economic downturn beginning in 2008 put major stress on government finances. The administration burned through half its prodigious foreign reserves and quickly ran up domestic debt.

Resources inherited from the previous government and a recovery of oil prices helped to shore up a shaky equilibrium. Still, there was little headway on a promised initiative to expand the country's anemic power supply, as electricity output actually diminished.

These problems gained urgency as the country descended into a leadership succession crisis. President Yar'Adua's fragile health took a turn for the worse in November 2009, when he left the country for medical care in Saudi Arabia. As weeks stretched into months, the president's family and aides refused access to others and withheld medical information. The country was essentially without executive leadership until the National Assembly passed a February resolution designating Jonathan as acting president.

With the return of the ailing president to Nigeria a few days later, Jonathan served in an uncertain legal and political status until Yar'Adua died in May. At that point, Vice President Jonathan became president in accordance with the constitution.

Elections: A Moment of Change?

As he attained executive authority, Goodluck Jonathan outlined a set of goals that suggested possibilities for reform.

Acknowledging entrenched problems, he stressed the need for credible and peaceful polls in 2011. Another priority was a consolidation of peace in the Niger Delta, where conflict subsided in the wake of an October 2009 amnesty initiative. Further, Jonathan promised to make headway on improving the decrepit electricity system.

A series of high-level appointments underscored these commitments. Most visible was the removal of Maurice Iwu as head of INEC and his replacement in June by Professor Attahiru Jega, a widely respected academic and democratic activist. Jega's high profile and reputation for integrity won accolades throughout Nigeria and abroad.

While Professor Jega projected an energetic stance, a simple change of leadership was clearly insufficient to ensure better polls. Many analysts pointed to problems of corruption and capacity extending throughout the electoral commission. Former Governor Donald Duke of Cross River state published an expose on rigging elections, which detailed frequent collusion between state governors and election officials.

Credible elections depend upon coordination among INEC, the political parties, incumbent leaders, the security agencies and civic groups. Jega took up his posting with a short time line, scarce resources, and an uncertain mandate.

Preparations for the vote have followed an uneven course.

The National Assembly was fairly quick to grant INEC's funding request of more than $600 million. Longer deliberations over the enabling legislation for primaries and the general elections followed.

Party primaries commenced in January with the PDP's nominating contest. While the actual voting appeared transparent, money was freely disbursed to delegates by all contenders, according to widespread media reports and the accounts of participants.

President Jonathan secured the party's nomination with nearly eighty percent of the votes, swamping his challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who contested as a northern "consensus" candidate.

The registration exercise, a litmus test of INEC's capacity and its intent to enfranchise voters, was fraught by delays and technical difficulties. Officials opted for a process that relied on electronic devices for recording and managing data, despite the complexity of the system and shortages of electricity nationwide.

Registration of voters was deferred until January, and then extended, to iron out glitches and improve access. Civil society observers noted improvements in performance throughout the exercise, although many Nigerians related stories of long lines, failing equipment, and confusion at registration sites.

INEC eventually announced that about 73.5 million citizens had registered – possibly more than ninety-five percent of eligible voters. Skeptical Nigerians have questioned how such efficiency was achieved amidst the evident problems of infrastructural and organizational difficulties. Posting of the register is said to be underway, though hard copies are not available at all locations.

A Candidate and Party Primer

Apart from logistical and administrative challenges, the political party landscape is contentious and fluid. Although Nigeria claims 63 registered political parties, only a few compete effectively at national or even at state levels.

Through expedient politics, the governing PDP has accommodated diverse elites and strengthened its grip on power. With few distinctive programs or political philosophy, the party has coalesced around its ability to capture elections and the promise of parceling out state-mediated largesse from the prodigious oil economy.

The power-sharing principal embodied in "zoning" has been the cornerstone of the PDP's claim to inclusiveness. Now, Goodluck Jonathan's succession from the short-lived Yar'Adua presidency could upset that informal compact.

When Jonathan announced his candidacy in September 2010, disgruntled PDP members from northern states mounted a challenge. Several contenders emerged, including former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar; a former high security official, Aliyu Gusau; and the Kwara State Governor, Bukola Saraki. Each has notable assets along with political baggage.

After lengthy consultations the Northern Leaders' Political Forum (NLPF), an informal caucus of notables selected Abubakar as the consensus northern candidate within the PDP.

Interestingly, Atiku Abubakar's defeat in the PDP primaries did not incite sectional rancor or a violent regional schism of the party. Abubakar himself joined President Jonathan's campaign committee, as did principal figures in several other northern candidates' campaigns and some leading members of the NLPF.

Former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who enjoys a reputation for integrity and is widely popular in the north, is again competing for the presidency after unsuccessful campaigns in two previous elections. He is the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) and has balanced his ticket with Tunde Bakare, a Yoruba from the south who is a Pentecostal minister and prominent democratic activist.

The All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP), a perennial rival to the PDP, with a significant following in the north, has nominated Kano State Governor Ibrahim Shekarau to head its presidential ticket.

Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria's leading anti-corruption body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has entered the race under the banner of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), a party with a reform profile and electoral strength in the southwest. All three of these prominent challengers are Muslims from the northern states.

The PDP retains a durable national organization, linkages to influential governors in most areas of the country, and substantial advantages of incumbency. Yet the internal tensions and external challenges have opened the way for significant gains by opposition parties in legislative, state and local races.

Some analysts have even conjectured that the presidency could be won through a plurality rather than an outright majority – a possibility under Nigeria's constitution. While outcomes are uncertain, many Nigerians have been heartened by a new sense of competition and diversity.

Peaceful, Credible Elections?

The specter of violence is always present in Nigerian politics, and a string of incidents has raised concerns. Last week, a PDP senatorial office in Niger State was bombed, while a February blast in Bayelsa targeted the opposition Labour Party. These are the most visible in a series of bombings and killings in scattered parts of the country.

The violence, while not epidemic, contributes to public apprehension about security at the polls. As campaigns intensify, INEC and the police have pledged greater efforts to ensure a peaceful vote.

In the end, Nigeria's political course could be influenced more by the conduct of the 2011 elections than by the actual results.

Few Nigerians expect polling to be free of administrative problems or even sporadic misconduct. Civic activists have urged "mandate protection" by voters at the polling stations to keep materials in sight and to prevent the falsification of results.

If elections are generally orderly and fairly counted – as verified by personal experience, local media, and domestic observers – both candidates and the public will likely accept the results or contest them peacefully through the courts.

However, if there is a widespread perception of disarray and manipulation, then popular disaffection and political rancor will trail the polls. Extra-judicial efforts to protest flawed results are likely, and violence cannot be discounted, especially in flashpoint areas where armed groups have been active.

President Jonathan has repeated his public commitment to open elections, including his willingness to accept a losing verdict at the polls. His assurances encouraged many Nigerians who have grown cynical about the nation's political class.

The president's intentions, however, are not the only factor in the vote's conduct and credibility. Networks of politicians, party barons, and public institutions – including electoral officials and the courts – have been implicated in past election malpractices.

Should these elections be perceived as thwarting popular choice and consolidating an elite cartel, any future administration will find it difficult to arrest the drain of resources by self-interested politicians and cronies, to manage an economy meandering among shocks and turbulence, or to stabilize a national landscape marked by social violence.

In contrast, the achievement of popularly accepted elections would pave the way for restructuring Nigeria's economy, promoting more broadly shared growth, improving the quality of governance and mitigating domestic conflict.

Friends of Africa's most populous nation hope for that outcome.

Peter M. Lewis is director of African Studies and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His published works on Nigeria include Growing Apart: Oil, Politics, and Economic Change in Indonesia and Nigeria.

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