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Nigerian elections: The big issues

Article - February 11, 2015

As Nigeria goes to the polls on February 14th, the country is faced with the continued threat of Boko Haram, endemic corruption, and the tensions of a historic north south divide.  The Wordfolio looks at the issues, the presidential contenders, and what the country must do going forward

This Valentine’s Day, Nigeria – one of Africa’s most prosperous yet most troubled states – will hold its presidential elections.  On February 14th, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – which has won every election since Nigeria transitioned from military to democratic rule in 1999 – is pitted against Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), the main opposition.

While Nigeria has fared reasonably well under President Jonathan economically speaking, usurping South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy in 2014, as well as taking its place as Sub Saharan Africa’s top investment destination, the country has at the same time become dangerously unstable.  As pressure builds on the economy due to low oil prices, Nigeria’s political landscape, which is already aggravated by historic north-south tensions, has been thrown into deeper turmoil by the continued rise of Boko Haram.

The militant Islamist group - which has caused havoc in Nigeria throughout much of Jonathan’s first term through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions - is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.  Boko Haram has converted large parts of northern Nigeria into its own horror-filled territory, and in the weeks leading up to elections the group has escalated its attacks, including the massacre of up to as many as 2000 people in the town of Baga in January.

However, the biggest threat to Nigeria during election season is perhaps not that of militant bullets, but the ballots themselves.  The country’s last elections in 2011 – despite being declared fair by international monitors – were followed by days of rioting by supporters of Mr Buhari (who also then ran as opposition leader) which claimed hundreds of lives. 

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the World Economic Forum, Davos

The rivalry between Goodluck Jonathan and Muhannadu Buhari (and their respective parties) is characterized by the country’s much larger political, cultural and religious divide. Jonathan is a Christian from southern Nigeria, while Buhari is a Muslim from northern Nigeria; an area largely overlooked for development at the expense of the oil rich south.

Add to all this the fact that (with less than a week to go to election) Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has been typically tardy with voter registration and the distribution of voters’ cards, and the country could be set for yet more trouble ahead.  With just shy of 70 million names on the voting list, only 54m cards have been printed (fewer than 40m of these have been collected).   Many have called for the elections to be postponed, but the government has stated that this won’t be the case.

In the meantime, for those who can vote but will not be choosing their party for ethnic/religious motives, they will have to look at the big issues facing Nigeria and decide which leader best to take them forward. The biggest issue is the country’s deteriorating security situation.  While it is clear that President Jonathan’s administration has struggled to contain the rise of Boko Haram,  PDP supporters say that the government is doing its best given the circumstances, and that the war against terrorism cannot be won overnight or by Nigeria alone.

When poked about the five-year-old insurgency, which has until now killed more than 16,000 people and displaced around a million, Mr Jonathan says that Boko Haram is part of an international problem.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently responded by saying that the United States was prepared to do more to help the Nigerian military’s fight against Boko Haram, but warned that the level of support would be influenced by Nigerian politician’s resolve to carry out fair and peaceful elections.

 The other major issue for Nigeria is corruption. Entrenched corruption in Nigerian politics is why, in spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues over the last fifty years, there remains a dearth of decent infrastructure in the country. Corruption is also intertwined with the security problem; the military has long been accused of misappropriating funds.

Regarding both the big issues of security and corruption, Mr Buhari — a candidate in the last three presidential elections — is seen as credible alternative. A retired army general who has successful military campaigns under his belt, there also appears to be little evidence of large wealth in his coffers neither at home or abroad; a rarity indeed for a retired Nigerian army general.

Muhammadu Buhari, leader of the opposition, meets with John Kery, US Secretary of State

Whether Nigerians choose Jonathan or Buhari – PDP or APC – the election promises to be one of the country’s closest ever.  Whichever the victor, he must do everything in his power to ensure Nigeria tackles its spiraling problems once and for all.  The long term goal must be to overhaul the country’s security forces, providing them with better resources and recruiting law abiding public citizens, while the systemic corruption that has widely contributed to Islamic radicalization in the country (by depriving the poorer north of its share of oil money and holding back its development) has to be stamped out.

Perhaps most importantly for Nigeria though, at least in its immediate future, is that if it is to win comprehensive international support in its fight against the growing terror of Boko Haram, then it must ensure that come elections this Valentine’s Day, it is love and hope that conquers fear and violence.

By Aled Bryon, staff writer at The Worldfolio