Jonathan vs Buhari: No matter the result, this is no ordinary Nigerian election

The presidential battle has unexpectedly shaped up to be a statistical dead heat. Only the very brave would bet against a runoff.

LAST Saturday, Nigeria’s Independent National Election Commission (INEC) unexpectedly postponed the presidential election, scheduled for February 14, by six weeks. 

INEC’s justification for the delay was that the Nigerian military is unable to provide adequate security at polling stations due to its ongoing battle with militant Boko Haram group. (Read: Nigeria’s election delay: here are the winners, losers and unexpected fence-sitters)

While there is little doubt that the Nigerian army is stretched, a lack of clarity on what will be different in six weeks has led the opposition to call it a “setback for democracy” and US Secretary of State John Kerry to stop just short of alleging government interference. 

For those that have been watching the election closely over the past several months, the announcement was just one more sign that Nigeria’s 2015 election is shaping up to be the closest in more than two decades, and a major test of democracy in the region.

Real issues at the fore

Ordinarily, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) would be the candidate to beat, as the party has won every election since first coming to power in 1999 at the end of military rule.

Benefitting from an ability to use state funds strategically, African presidential incumbents are statistical shoe-ins, re-elected 85% of the time on the first ballot. Nigeria does not usually buck this trend, but the past 12 months have been anything but ordinary. 

Struggles with national security and the economy, combined with strong opposition mean that the All Progressives Congress (APC) and their presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, have a real opportunity to cause a PDP upset.  

On the security front, the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls by Boko Haram shone a global spotlight on the militant insurgency in the country’s north east. Failure to rescue the girls, combined with attacks that have left entire villages dead and Nigerian refugees fleeing to Chad and Cameroon, have subsequently cast a harsh domestic light on Jonathan’s inability to secure Nigeria’s territory.

On the economic front, although news seemed positive in early 2014 when Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy through GDP rebasing, the recent plunge in oil prices have changed all that. Currency values have plummeted to record lows, and less than expected revenues have cast doubt on the government’s ability to meet its financial obligations in 2015. ( Read: More Nigeria election pain as stock market worst global performer so far, and currency hits all-time low)

There is uncertainty over how much inflation will rise, but as a country still heavily dependent on imports, traders in the commercial hub of Lagos have already started to raise prices.

An opposition movement bigger than its candidate

Policy troubles aside, the Jonathan campaign’s top concern will be the opposition, as the APC has put together its strongest national network and best funded candidate slate in its political history. The APC’s current strength is largely credited to its de facto leader, Bola Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos, which is Nigeria’s most populous state of 15 million residents.  

An accountant by training and politician by sweat and blood, Tinubu is a unique mix of technocrat and godfather. Since 1999 he has used his power in Lagos state to demonstrate he understands how to improve state effectiveness whilst also raising billions for his political movement. As the APC has grown in strength, it has also managed to attract disenfranchised PDP politicians to join its cause.  

In the past two years, the APC has managed to snap up dozens of PDP defectors, and although some have later wobbled, the list of legislators, senators, and state governors is impressive. The net result of defects has been a shaky APC majority in the House of Representatives and the governorships in five new states, all of which combine to put a dent in Jonathan’s incumbent advantage.

Despite progress on key fronts, the Achilles heel of an APC victory will most likely be its most well-known member and presidential candidate. In an effort to balance regional, religious and historical politics in a single candidate, and in the absence of a star candidate that was acceptable to the party establishment, the APC selected Buhari reluctantly as he is viewed by many as a ‘has been’ presidential candidate.  

With a track record of losing every election since 2003, if Buhari does win, it will be the weakness of Jonathan and the strength of the APC that pushes him over the finish line on the new election date of March 28.

All signs point to a tense run-off

Despite what some view as a weak candidate, the election was close even before Buhari was announced as the presidential candidate. For weeks those working on the Jonathan campaign have privately admitted they expect a run off due to constitutional requirements that a candidate receive both an absolute majority and one quarter of the votes in two thirds of states to be declared a winner at the first ballot. 

The run-off scenario is further supported by a University of Oxford political scientists’ analysis published in late 2014 who arrived to the same conclusion. More recent credible polls published by the USAID and Mo Ibrahim-backed Afrobarometer have suggested that Jonathan and Buhari are in a dead heat. 

Assuming there is no political meddling, all signs point to an intense run-off which constitutionally is decided by a simple majority of votes cast. 

Whoever wins, the vote in 2015 has the potential to provide a either a watershed moment, or total disaster for democratic development in Nigeria. And no matter the result, one thing is for certain: this is no ordinary Nigerian election.

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