NIGERIA’S election on March 28, already postponed once and fraught with tension, may determine investor and foreign leaders’ perceptions of whether democracy has taken hold in Africa.
As the continent’s most populous country, its biggest economy and top oil producer, Nigeria’s conduct during and after the vote is being closely monitored. The West African nation hasn’t had a peaceful transition of power between parties since independence from the UK in 1960, with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in charge since a return to civilian rule in 1999.
The PDP is facing its toughest contest yet after opposition parties merged in 2013 to unseat President Goodluck Jonathan.
“This election will be a bellwether for the entire continent,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, told reporters on February 26. “The world is watching, the continent is watching, Nigeria’s neighbours are watching this election.”
Electoral authorities postponed the election one week before it was scheduled to take place on February 14, following a request from Jonathan’s security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, who said the military was too stretched fighting an Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram in the northeast of the country to keep voters safe.
Civil rights groups have warned of the threat of a constitutional crisis if the vote is postponed again or scrapped.
The political uncertainty, coupled with a plunge in oil prices, caused the currency to drop 18% against the dollar in the past six months, the worst performer of 24 African nations tracked by Bloomberg.
Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader who aims to unseat Jonathan, said on February 26 that the election has “great implications” beyond Nigeria’s borders and it will test the strength of the principle that voters can replace governments without provoking violence.
“Peaceful alternation of power through competitive elections have happened in Ghana, Senegal, Malawi and Mauritius in recent times,” Buhari said in a speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House, in London. “The prospects of democratic consolidation in Africa will be further brightened when that eventually happens in Nigeria.”
A survey of 2,400 adults in December showed support is evenly split at 42% for the PDP and Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, according to Afrobarometer, a research group whose funders include the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, will hold a presidential election in October, its first since a disputed ballot in 2010, when then-incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat to opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara. A five-month conflict that followed left at least 3,000 people dead.
Burkina Faso is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on October 11, almost a year after nationwide protests ousted President Blaise Compaore following 27 years in office. A transitional president was appointed about three weeks after Compaore fled to Ivory Coast.
While domestic factors are the main drivers of the risk of civil unrest in countries such as Guinea and Togo, which will also hold elections this year, “there are signs of some emulation within Africa,” Jesper Cullen, a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at Risk Advisory Group, a global risk management consultancy, said by phone recently from London.
“In Togo, some of the opposition groups have been referring to Burkina Faso, saying that they kicked out the president there, so we can do it here,” he said.
Nigeria’s election four years ago, which Jonathan won by taking about 59 percent of the vote, was followed by days of rioting in which hundreds of people were killed, mainly in the north, according to Human Rights Watch. Buhari, who was a candidate in the three previous elections, protested against his defeat, claiming the vote was rigged.
In a country roughly divided between a Muslim north and Christian south, the demonstrations degenerated into sectarian and ethnic violence, as mainly pro-Buhari Muslims targeted Christians and southerners, prompting reprisal attacks.
“When people look at decent elections, they look at Ghana and Botswana, these are the countries people respect,” Cullen said. “People look at Nigeria and they expect it will be bad, they expect unrest.”
Tension has intensified as the military struggles to contain a six-year insurgency by Boko Haram militants. The group’s campaign to impose Islamic law on the country has spilled over into neighboring countries, including Chad and Cameroon, killed about 15,000 people since 2009, and forced at least a million Nigerians from their homes.
“The signs are that there is greater potential for violence and civil unrest in Nigeria than last time, and this time there is a much more severe threat of terrorism,” Cullen said.
Elsewhere, Guinea, the West African nation hit by the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola, is scheduled to hold general elections this year that “run the risk of instability and inter-ethnic violence,” according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. A legislative vote in 2013 was delayed by almost three years as a result of violence after the 2010 presidential ballot, the country’s first democratic vote since independence.
The outlook isn’t all bleak, said Albert Essien, chief executive officer of Ecobank Transnational Inc., which operates in 36 African countries. Burkina Faso’s relatively quick move to a transitional administration following Compaore’s resignation shows there’s political will on the continent to resolve conflict, he said.
“The good thing about Africa today is that when problems arise, countries come around quickly to work with stakeholders in that particular country,” Essien said in an interview in London. “I am optimistic that Nigeria will not turn into flames.”