On February 14, Nigeria is set for the closest election since the return to multiparty politics in 1999. The contest pits President Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) against Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Although in many ways this election appears to mirror the contest in 2011, when the same candidates faced off, in reality there are significant differences. In 2011, the party system was deeply fragmented, with 20 different presidential candidates, four of which had a significant national profile. In the end, Goodluck Jonathan won with 59% of the vote, with the opposition vote largely being split between Buhari (32%), Nuhu Ribadu (5%), and Ibrahim Shekarau (2%). This time round, the opposition is more united, better organized, and for the first time appears to have a credible chance of winning.
Although Buhari has already suffered defeat at the hands of PDP candidates in three presidential elections, he has never enjoyed the support of a political vehicle with such national reach or momentum. In a country where ethnic and religious mobilization is more important that manifesto pledges, it is particularly significant that the APC slate draws together powerful figures from both sides of the north/south divide. Buhari, a Muslim from Katsina state in the far north of Nigeria, has regularly polled well in the areas in which the PDP is currently weakest. His running mate, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, a Law professor and the Commissioner for Justice and Attorney-General in Lagos State between 1999 and 2007 is relatively unknown. However, behind Osinbajo lie some of the most influential political figures in the South-West of the country, such as Bola Tinubu, the extremely wealthy former Governor of Lagos State.
In addition to significant geographical coverage, the APC has some genuine reform credentials, as it supported by the highly respected current Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, once described as “A rare good man” in an Economist article on Nigeria’s business capital. This image was enhanced by the holding of relatively transparent party primaries to select the party’s presidential candidate, which encouraged many of the losing candidates to stay with the party, rather than to sell their services to the PDP.
Significantly, Buhari also represents a particular threat to the incumbent because he is strong in some of the areas in which President Jonathan is weak. Although Nigerians have a number of complaints about his previous stint as Head of State (1983-85), which followed his seizure of power in a military coup, they also tend to praise two aspects of his record in office: his crackdown on corruption and his routing of insurgents in the north of the country. Both make him seem to be a leader with the kind of experience that Nigeria desperately needs.
The emergence of a stronger opposition could not have happened at a worse time for President Goodluck Jonathan, whose popularity – even among PDP supporters – appears to be at an all time low. On the one hand, many of the great and the good of the ruling party have deserted Jonathan. Founding member and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has defected to the APC, as have five state governors. A number of other political heavyweights such as former President Olesegun Obasanjo have publicly recorded their criticism of Jonathan, blaming him for the escalation of the Boko Haram insurgency and the country’s economic difficulties.
Evidence of continuing corruption has not helped Jonathan’s cause. In March 2013, Transparency International criticized the president for rescinding the pardon given to Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former governor of the oil-rich state of Bayelsa, who had been convicted for money laundering and other serious corruption offences in 2007. According to TI, “This decision undermines anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria and encourages impunity. If the government is serious about uprooting public corruption, sanctions against those who betray the public trust should be strengthened, not relaxed”. The president’s record on corruption was called into question once again in early 2014 when the respected head of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, was suspended after he alleged than $20 billion in oil revenues had ‘gone missing’. The move caused foreign exchange and money markets to stop trading temporarily, increasing the sense of economic uncertainty.
But the biggest problem for the president is undoubtedly the failure of his government to effectively deal with the Boko Haram insurgency. There are reports that the president’s election convoy was stoned by youths in the eastern town of Jalingo, who were angry at the failure of the government to provide security. Feelings were running so high that the government was forced to order soldiers to guard billboards and posters of Jonathan for fear that they would be vandalized, which generated a fresh set of criticisms about the misuse of troops, who appear to be assisting the president’s campaign rather than fighting the insurgency.
It is hard to know exactly how much these kinds of policy failings have undermined support for the PDP, which continues to be an effective patronage machine. However, although opinion polls in Nigeria are notoriously unreliable, the widespread dissemination of a survey conducted by African Independent Television (AIT) that put Buhari on 73.9% and Jonathan on 23.2% has caused considerable consternation among the government. The race is almost certainly closer than this, and the advantages of incumbency enjoyed by the PDP mean that many commentators are predicting that the ruling party will retain power, as it has done at every election since 1999. However, despite this there are clear signs that the PDP is worried about losing its grip on power.
Rumours abound. According to the Premium Times, President Jonathan is planning to launch a campaign to force the postponement of the elections in order to prevent an opposition victory. To save appearances, it is claimed that the campaign will be undertaken by others acting as proxies of the president, and will be based on the fact that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has only managed to distribute 42.77 million of the necessary 68.8 million Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) that citizens require in order to be able to cast their ballots, and may not reach all voters in time.
There is also concern that the government is getting ready to systematically rig the elections in a manner similar to the manipulation of the 2007 polls, described by some election observers as the worst they had ever seen. Geoffrey York, a journalist based in South Africa, has alleged that the government is systematically rejecting the visa applications of over 40 international journalists in what he described as the “latest Nigerian scandal”. A number of commentators have interpreted this development as an indication that the government is worried about electoral malpractices being exposed and communicated. According to Lola Shoneyin, an author from Ibadan, the desire of the government to restrict the coverage of the election by foreign media is a direct consequences of the way in which news stories about the failure of the security forces to combat Bojo Haram have embarrassed the president over the past twelve months.
In the absence of hard facts, such fears are likely to proliferate. There are certainly a number of good reasons to be concerned. If the APC does perform strongly and if this prompts the PDP to intervene in a way that undermines the credibility of the process, the consequences are likely to be far more severe than they were in 2007. Despite clear evidence that those elections were flawed, popular apathy and opposition disunity meant that there protests were limited and the government continued to operate much as it had in the past. Things are very different in 2015. The opposition is more united, opposition supporters are more energized about the potential for political change, and the security forces are stretched to breaking point. Against this background, a poor election would not just undermine the legitimacy of President Goodluck Jonathan’s rule, but could inspire widespread political unrest.