ASG Analysis - Nigeria's Presidential Election Delayed


On March 28, nearly 70 million Nigerians are expected to go to the polls in what may be the closest and most volatile presidential contest in the nation’s history, some six weeks later than expected. On February 7, Nigeria’s electoral commission announced the change, pushing polling back from the originally scheduled date of February 14 (gubernatorial elections were also delayed from February 28 to April 11). The delay, while ostensibly a result of the government’s announcement that it could not ensure security in unstable northern Nigeria, has been widely criticized as a stall tactic on the part of incumbent candidate President Goodluck Jonathan and his ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The election looms during an especially vulnerable period in strategically important Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation: falling oil prices have led to a depreciation of the naira and revenue shortfalls; the military has been unable to stop the spread of the terrorist organization Boko Haram across northeastern Nigeria and into neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad; and endemic corruption rivals that under notorious former head of state Sani Abacha. Unrest in the long disenfranchised, predominantly Muslim north has displaced over a million citizens, bringing into sharp relief both the extent of the security crisis and lingering tensions with the oil-rich, commercial centers of the heavily Christian south. Capitalizing on these challenges, the opposition alliance All Progressives Congress (APC) has gained significant traction amongst disgruntled citizens with presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari, who has positioned himself as an experienced securocrat and anti-corruption crusader. Even with six additional weeks to attempt to deliver on long-promised security gains, President Jonathan and his long-ruling PDP—still a formidable political machine with a vast war chest—face an uphill struggle to convince voters that they are best placed to steer Nigeria forward.


The delay is not unprecedented: in 2011 Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) pushed the general election back by a week after struggling to finalize logistics. Similar challenges are in play for 2015—as of February 4, nearly 25 million voters lacked ID cards required for access to polling stations. But INEC head Attahiru Jega, seen by many as a capable technocrat, has consistently asserted that the commission was prepared for the February contest to go forward. As popular support for the opposition grew in recent months, there were signs that President Jonathan’s administration was increasingly advocating for a delay. On February 5, Jonathan met with his advisory Council of State to urge a postponement and National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki suggested the election be postponed while traveling in London in late January; both cited northern insecurity. Indeed the threat of Boko Haram is real: more than 1 million Nigerians have been displaced by terrorist attacks and the military’s oft bungled response; over 2,000 citizens have been killed already this year; the three most affected northern states are under a national state of emergency; and concerns over regional instability have prompted the deployment of a new African Union-led taskforce, with troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin joining Chadian forces already deployed to Nigeria’s borders. But the timing of the delay raises red flags amongst critics: Nigeria has battled Boko Haram for six years with limited success and there is little confidence in the military’s ability to imminently alter the status quo. Further, the postponement willcurry no favor among northern voters and is perceived by many as another indication of the administration’s weak leadership and ineffective security apparatus. Following the announcement, powerful former President Olusegun Obasanjo, long seen as quietly backing the APC, came out publically in favor of Buhari and formally announced his defection from the PDP, rejecting the party he had once helped to found. With so much at stake, critics fear that the PDP may use the interim period to attempt vote rigging, suppress votes in APC strongholds, and work to weaken Buhari’s lead.

At 72-years of age, General Buhari has a long history in Nigerian politics, having served as head of state under military rule in the 1980s and contested the presidential election three subsequent times. This time around, Buhari is better positioned to win in a credible contest. Growing defections from the PDP to the APC camp, coupled with Nigeria’s escalating economic downturn and increasing instability in the north gave the APC new momentum. Buhari’s pick for vice presidential candidate is former attorney general and professor Oluyemi Oluleke Osinbajo. As a Muslim northerner, Buhari’s selection of Osinbajo, a southern evangelical, is a means of uniting support across Nigeria’s ethnic and religious divides. His election would return Nigeria to its unwritten rotation system in which the presidency alternates between north and south every eight years and, supporters claim, will help quell northern disaffection.


The potential for electoral violence is high and the results scenarios are varied. For an outright win, either Buhari or Jonathan, who are far and away the most popular candidates in a much larger field, will need to receive the plurality of votes cast in addition to 25 percent of the votes in at least 24 of 36 states. Should the election be too close to call, the constitution requires a run-off election to take place between the top two highest-scorers within seven days of INEC’s certification of the initial results (an extremely ambitious timeline, according to election experts). In the run-off, the original requirement holds; should a second run-off be required, the winner will need only achieve a simple majority. Both candidates have agreed to accept INEC’s results, but in practice, the losing party is likely to mount a contestation – especially if the winner’s margin is less than one million, roughly equal to the number of Nigerians who have been displaced by conflict in the northeast and whose ability to vote in March remains in question. A legal contest presents its own challenges, as the Supreme Court has been criticized for lacking independence and the APC has expressed hesitance to trust the courts with a potential challenge. As the presidential contest approaches, Boko Haram has intensified attacks in northeastern Nigeria, threatening disruption to March elections. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, announced his determination to disrupt the elections at any cost in a video released via Boko Haram’s Twitter account. If the PDP wins, Nigeria watchers are predicting significant violence in APC strongholds, especially in the north. According to some experts, electoral violence – both in response to the outcome and from Boko Haram – could trigger the Nigerian military to step-in and take control of the government. Should violence escalate to the point of threatening Nigeria’s—or the region’s—stability, an international diplomatic intervention is likely, similar to efforts made in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007-8 election and Cote d’Ivoire’s 2011 crisis.

Investor uncertainly will continue until the election outcome is clear, any lame duck period has passed, and the new administration is in place (inauguration is slated for May 29). Government business has ground to a halt—President Jonathan’s administration is entirely focused on the campaign and will be similarly absorbed by its contestation should the PDP lose. If Buhari is elected, his administration will likely conduct a review of deals made under Jonathan’s presidency to weed out perceived or real corruption – especially those in the petroleum sector, where allegations have been frequent. The business community has been buoyed to see Buhari surround himself with powerful technocrats like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola, Kano State governor Mohammed Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, and Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi, but what exact role these advisors will hold if Buhari comes to power is still in question. Should Jonathan retain his seat, changes in his cabinet as a nod to popular discontent are possible. In either case geographic representation will remain paramount: Nigeria’s presidents are constitutionally required to select at least one minister from each state.


The ultimate winner of Nigeria's election will be rewarded with the stewardship of Africa’s largest economy during a very challenging period. In addition to tackling corruption, military reform and instability in the north, the new administration will be confronted with significant fiscal challenges. Oil revenue accounts for 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange and roughly 75-80 percent of the federal budget. Faced with a budget shortfall, the new administration may be forced to cut popular gas subsidies. Nigeria’s forecast growth rate for 2015 has already dropped from seven to five percent and the victorious candidate will face domestic pressure to keep growth on track.

What is clear is that this election and its aftermath will be a critical turning point for Nigeria with serious implications for regional stability —and the world is watching. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Lagos in January to meet with Jonathan and Buhari, urging both leaders to respect the democratic process. In the wake of the delay, Kerry issued a statement of concern, condemning political interference and reiterating calls for a peaceful and credible contest without further delay. Continued international engagement through this uncertain period will be important, and Africa’s elder statesmen, in Nigeria and across the region, are preparing to intervene as necessary. As questions grow over Africa’s ability to continue its economic rise, Nigeria serves as both leader and bellwether on the continent. Nigeria’s ability to successfully manage this test would be hailed as a significant democratic victory; its failure could devastate the national economy and have a chilling impact across the continent and in the global economy. For answers, all eyes turn to March 28.