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Nigeria's Long-Awaited Election: What You Need To Know

Africa’s most populous country is gearing up for general election after a controversial six-week postponement. Sahara Reporters and The Guardian, UK share the five core issues set to influence the vote


The long-awaited Nigerian elections are nearing after a controversial six-week postponement. Now slated for 28 March, the vote may prove to be the most significant political event in Africa this year.

The 2015 polls come at a time when national confidence in Nigeria’s ability to provide security, fight Boko Haram and uphold the law is running low.

Coupled with the divisive competitiveness of the electoral race, the political and economic stakes of this election are the most significant since the end of the country’s military rule in 1998.

From oil to terrorism and ethnic divides, here are the five key factors set to influence the vote next week.

Party defections: power plays


Defections from high profile politicians from one party to another have become commonplace.

Most have been leaving Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), headed by the Mohammadu Buhari, who has become increasingly popular.

Rotimi Amaechi, the influential governor of Rivers State defected to the APC, as well as the governor of Kano State, Rabiu Kwankwaso. This was a significant blow to Jonathan as both states were key political strongholds for him – a Christian from the south of the country – in the predominantly muslim north.

According to Rudolf Okonkwo, a SaharaTV commentator, “the motivation driving these defections is politicians seeking more power, rather than ideological differences.”

Okonkwo notes that “the people defecting were assets to the PDP, and by defecting they took financial resources and some of the parties major strategies with them,” thus strengthening Buhari’s campaign.

“Nigeria is a failed state that works for the very people who have failed it. The defections were attempts by people who failed the nation to remain relevant in a new party,” he adds.

Boko Haram: a ‘political football’


The threat from Boko Haram grown in recent months, with fresh attacks in Maiduguri against Nigerian security forces, and the Baga massacre described by Amnesty International as the terror group’s “deadliest” to date.

An estimated 10,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced by Boko Haram since 2009 – though accurate figures are a challenge to find.

John Campbell, former US Ambassador to Nigeria and editor of the Nigeria Security Tracker, said that “it is very likely that Boko Haram will plan an attack during the elections”.

He also predicts that Boko Haram will actively publicity for its atrocities coinciding them prominent national events – like the Maiduguri attack which coincided with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit. There are concerns that Boko Haram could attack on polling stations during the election.

Boko Haram is “being used as a political football by politicians” who are more interested in discrediting each other than addressing the insurgency.

After months of inaction many citizens criticised president Jonathan for using Boko Haram as justification to postpone the elections, but for the terrorist group, the division between the main parties is irrelevant: “Boko Haram detests both political parties, and nearly killed Muhammadu Buhari a few months ago,” Campbell said.

Postponing the election was not about security


In reaction to last month’s postponement by the ruling PDP party, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that “Nigerians are politically astute enough to know that the postponement has nothing to do with security” and called it “a flailing act of desperation from an incumbent terrified of losing.”

The Independent National Election Commission (Inec) are responsible for overseeing the election. A history of endemic corruption has put the non-partisan body under pressure to ensure that the 2015 polls are coordinated with strict integrity.

Inec has been under immense pressure throughout, and early on it was confronted with budgetary challenges, which threatened to disrupt their operations.

Then, ahead of the original election date – Feburary 14 – Inec’s Chairman Attahiru Jega was pressured by Nigeria’s security chiefs to postpone the election, or face the consequences of carrying out elections without security at polling stations.

PDP officials and pro-Jonathan groups have also called for the president to remove Jega from his post as chairman, despite the constitutional violations of such a move.

Former US Ambassador John Campbell is concerned that media may have underestimated “the magnitude of effort needed” for Inec to conduct effective elections, particularly given the challenges they face with by infrastructure and Nigeria’s immense population.

Identity politics


Political rhetoric in Nigeria is largely constructed around ethnic, religious, and regional identities which have been manipulated by the political elite to distract the electorate from demanding legal, economic, and administrative reforms.

Regional identity has evolved into a contentious political issue and is becoming, according to Africa policy expert Nii Akuetteh, “synonymous with religion in political conversations.”

This dynamic has been exacerbated by the APC/PDP political divide: Buhari is a northern Muslim candidate enjoying large support in the north, Jonathan is a southern Christian president with a support base in the south.

The three major ethnic communities in Nigeria are the Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa. Inflammatory rhetoric from political leaders has lead to fear-based campaigning and has made Nigerians suspicious of fellow ethnic groups.

Akuetteh is also concerned with the “institutionalisation of identity in politics” in Nigeria where political parties are coalescing around these identities, rather than running national campaigns.

Oil revenue: ‘it’s going to be painful’


The effects of dropping oil prices worldwide will place immense pressure on whichever political party wins.

According to the Natural Resource Governance Institute, revenue from oil and petroleum accounts for 70% of the Nigerian government’s revenue. The new president will have to choose between cutting public spending – in an unchartered political environment – or find new creative measures to generate revenue.

Michael Cirami, co-director of the Global Income Group at Eaton Vance, forecasts that “if the price of oil remains around the mid-$40 per barrel, and Nigeria doesn’t make needed fiscal policy adjustments,” it may face “serious economic challenges”.In the medium term, accounting for currency fluctuation and revenue loss, the question of oil “is going to be painful for both investors and the local population” Cirami says. He also suggests that “investors are not feeling as confident, and someone with money may want to wait until after the election before investing.”