Categorized | Africa, World

The weight of history hangs over elections in Nigeria

Image by boellstiftung

Image by boellstiftung

The upcoming March 28 presidential elections in Nigeria are expected to be the most contested in the nation’s history. As election day approaches, the world is given a revealing look at the challenges facing Africa’s largest country today.

The electoral candidates are incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has been in power since 1999, and General Muhammadu Buhari of the newly formed All Progressive Congress (APC). Though the APC is a recent addition to the Nigerian political landscape, General Buhari is not.

In 1983 Buhari seized power from a democratically elected government through a military coup. He held the presidential seat for 20 months and was eventually ousted by a coup himself in 1985. His time in power was marked by strict sanctions taken against those who opposed the law or his government, part of a campaign called the “war against indiscipline.” Armed with an idealized view of society, Buhari sought to educate Nigerian society by whip and police baton. Reports abound of people being beaten if they weren’t queuing orderly in bus stations or if they were late for work. Unfortunately, the memories of the Buhari regime have faded away, especially since 70% of Nigeria’s population is too young to remember his rule.

For many Nigerians their role as voters lies in finding the lesser of two evils, between Buhari’s negative baggage and the deficiencies of the current president. Jonathan, who beat out Buhari for the presidency in 2011, has come under fire politically for his inability to quell the terrorist activities of Boko Haram or to properly deal with corruption in his own government. General Buhari’s campaign promises swift and effective solutions in both areas.

But there are other factors to consider beyond the strengths and failings of the candidates themselves. On March 28th, a great intersection of economics, geography and religion will have occurred. Historically, few Nigerians vote outside of a predetermined socio-economical pattern. For example, in 2011’s contest, Buhari received 96.9% of votes from the north.

Indeed, Nigeria is consistently stuck in a political game of tug-of-war between the majority Muslim north and the Christian, oil-rich south. The two regions, albeit equal in terms of population, have deep social divisions, with the north feeling more marginalized because of its general underdevelopment. These divisions, remnants of British colonial malpractice, have seen their grievances crystallized in two militant groups: Boko Haram in the north, and the rebels of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in the south.

Both groups have a history of political involvement, with MEND in particular having blackmailed government after government with terrorist attacks on key oil infrastructure unless its demands for more political representation were met. Threats made by MEND have led to an uneasy alliance between the militants and the government. In exchange for “amnesty” and pensions for its fighters, along with the promotion of fellow southern politicians, the group suspended terrorist activities. That is, until this round of elections, when MEND publicly endorsed Buhari, threatening to resume their attacks in the event of a Jonathan win.

On the other hand, Boko Haram has proven to be one of the most consistent threats to Nigerian peace, causing the Nigerian government to declare a state of emergency in three of its northernmost states in 2013. The jihadist group, whose name translates to “western education is forbidden,” is devoted to the creation of an Islamic state and has vowed to hinder the election process. And while General Buhari is outspoken in his intentions to stop Boko Haram, on this point the two agree. The Muslim presidential hopeful has previously called for total sharia law in all of Nigeria and has repeatedly said he will not recognize the elections if he feels cheated, statements which signaled alarm for some.

But beyond concerns for what might happen if Buhari is elected, there are also concerns for what might happen if he isn’t. After his unsuccessful tussle with Jonathan in 2011, pro-Buhari supporters instigated a campaign of violence and terror targeting Jonathan’s ethnic group. While Buhari denies any involvement, a legal action has been filed against him before the International Criminal Court, calling for an investigation into claims he encouraged his supporters to riot if he lost.

As the election approaches, Nigerians are faced with an ostensibly simple choice between Buhari and Jonathan. But it is also seems to be a choice that can be expressed along several fault lines, such as north versus south or Islam versus Christianity. And with the date of the vote being delayed in order to ensure an adequate security presence and to prevent riots like those in 2011, it seems impossible to separate Nigeria’s elections from its history. Hopefully this doesn’t mean that history will be repeated.

Image courtesy of boellstiftung

Tom Wirth

About Tom Wirth

Originally from Düsseldorf, Tom is a recent graduate in International Affairs from St.Gallen (with a focus on Africa), and is an aspiring foreign policy analyst in preparation for a PhD in Conflict Analysis.

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