Elections in Nigeria are a big event, but this month’s are the most momentous since the return to electoral rule in 1999. We may even see power change hands through the ballot box. This month’s presidential election is in some ways a re-run of the previous poll in 2011. President Goodluck Jonathan once again facing Muhammadu Buhari.
Even as the incumbent in 2011, Jonathan’s candidacy was not without controversy. He had only become president the previous year on the death of his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua. Jonathan’s promotion from vice president to president followed the country’s constitution, but not an unwritten understanding within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), that power would rotate between regions.
Despite this controversy, Jonathan was considered to have completed Yar’Adua’s term with a sure touch. He represented a new, younger, more educated (he is the first Nigerian president to have a doctorate) leadership, which provided him with some support when faced with Buhari, a former military ruler. There was also a sense that the people of the Niger Delta had won the right for one of their own, in the shape of Jonathan, to contest the presidency following a decade-long insurgency against the distribution of the costs and benefits of Nigeria’s oil, which is produced in the Delta.
Two factors have ensured this month’s much tighter election. Firstly, despite some successes – a constitutional conference and a more diversified economy growing at around 5% per year and rebased as the largest in Africa – the downsides to Jonathan’s presidency have been calamitous. He has not found a solution to the Boko Haram insurgency. His foreign policy reflects this shortcoming – he has appeared naïve and, dare one say it, clueless. For example, Nigeria supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised the no fly zone over Libya during the 2011 uprising against Muammar al Gathafi; he allowed a regional conference on Boko Haram to take place in Paris; or there is the December 2014 abstention on the Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood. These actions betrayed the very idea of Nigeria’s existence as the most ambitious pan-African experiment, with 170 million Africans using the same currency and laws, sharing resources and able to co-exist despite their differences.
Secondly, Buhari is in a much stronger position this time round after his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) merged with the two other biggest opposition parties, the Action Congress of Nigeria (APC) and the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), to form the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013. A number of prominent members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) then defected to the APC, giving the opposition representation of roughly half in the National Assembly and Governorships.
Buhari himself continues to attract praise and criticism in equal measure: praise for his discipline, anti-corruption credentials, and uncompromising and dogged determination; criticism for his militaristic approach, which doesn’t work in a diverse and self-opinionated country. He also pursues his vision with a reckless intensity. For example, in 1984, as military ruler he oversaw a diplomatic fall-out with Britain, when a plot to kidnap the politician Umaru Dikko in London and transport him to Nigeria in a crate to face charges of corruption was uncovered.
When a year later Ibrahim Babangida mounted his “palace coup” against Buhari, the British must have been pleased. Buhari must have been humiliated. He is a man who remembers a hurt. How much of the drive to get back to power (this is his fourth consecutive presidential bid) is because of this humiliation?
A returned Buhari will be an avenging angel and will unsettle the current Nigerian order, including amongst his supporters. Momentous elections indeed!