TIMELINE: Nigeria's elections - funny, strange, and downright insane events from the past

Elections are a fraught time in Nigerian – and African – politics, and sometimes, a postponement is the least of your worries.

NIGERIA goes to the polls on March 28, after a six-week delay that the government said was to allow the military to rout the Boko Haram militants who have terrorised a large swathe of northern Nigeria.

It hasn’t gone exactly according to script; Boko Haram killed 75 people in the town of Gwoza this week, and last week there was the reported kidnapping of at least 400 women and girls.

Elections are a fraught time in Nigerian – and African – politics, and sometimes, a postponement is the least of your worries.

We take a look at the strange, controversial, and downright insane events that have happened in previous Nigerian elections:

This isn’t the first time a Nigerian election is being delayed. In 1964, the country’s first poll as an independent country was postponed for several weeks because of discrepancies between the number of names on voting rolls and on census returns. Tensions were high, the country split along regional and ethnic lines, and large-scale pre- and post-election violence in which at least 2,000 people were killed was reported. 

The political brinkmanship almost led to a constitutional crisis, which precipitated a military coup in January 1966 – Nigeria would be led by military regimes for the next 33 years, save for a four-year break between 1979 and 1983.

The most famous election in Nigerian history was on June 12, 1993, a date that has entered the Nigerian lexicon as shorthand for betrayal and lost opportunities. In a presidential election that was widely considered Nigeria’s most free and fair, Moshood K. Abiola, a southern businessman, got 58% of the vote against his opponent Bashir Tofa who garnered 41%.

The election was historic because Muslim northerners had largely dominated Nigeria’s political landscape since independence. The fact that Moshood Abiola, a southern Muslim, was able to secure a broad national mandate remains unprecedented in Nigeria’s history.

But eleven days after the election, the military government presiding over the poll simply annulled the election, end of story. In the lead up to the election, the courts had been inundated with injunctions and petitions to stop the poll, and military leader Gen. Ibrahim Babangida said the annulment was made to save Nigeria’s judiciary from being ridiculed and politicised locally and internationally.

From the outset, the military authorities tightly controlled virtually every aspect of the planned transition to civilian rule. Not only did they limit the number of legal parties to two—the right-of-centre Republican National Convention (whose candidate was Tofa) and the left-of-centre Social Democracy Party (whose candidate was Abiola)—but they also named them, wrote the parties’ platforms, appointed senior party officials, provided campaign funds and even built hundreds of party offices.

Babangida named civilian businessman Ernest Shonekan as caretaker president in the wake of the controversial election, but Shonekan was unable to manage the chaos and political turmoil in the wake of the controversial election. It gave then Minister of Defence Sani Abacha the chance to grab the presidency in November 1993, and so began one of the most repressive eras in Nigerian history.

Abacha made a show of returning the country to democratic rule, but it was a farce. All five political parties in the country – which were only in operation after being thoroughly vetted by the military authorities – declared him their sole presidential candidate for an election scheduled for August 1, 1998.

8. Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president. Obasanjo’s main opponent, Chief Olu Falae, ran a campaign that was characterised by a succession of missed engagements, cancelled rallies and logistical mishaps. An eloquent economist, Chief Falae had more than enough intellectual clout to take on General Obasanjo. But he lacked financial muscle, and crucially, he lacked a sufficient spread of support amongst Nigeria’s myriad ethnic and regional groups. 

Obasanjo, who, like Falae, is Yoruba, is something of an enigma in Nigerian politics. The general has never been particularly popular amongst his own people, who perceived him to be too close to the northern generals who had dominated Nigeria for decades. But backed by the formidable political machine of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), he could rely on solid, if not passionate, support from most parts of the country, and Falae was unable to keep up.

9. In the 2003 election, southern Nigeria was restive as they demanded a greater share of the country’s oil revenue, as militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) received financial and material support from politicians in the region. The election was marred by widespread violence, intimidation, harassment, and fraud.  

One report prepared by a non-governmental organisation that monitored the elections stated: “In parts of Rivers and Bayelsa states observed by our monitors, the elections could be characterised as a low intensity armed struggle. Weapons and firearms of various types and sophistication were freely used.”

10. Goodluck Jonathan (a southerner), was deputy president to President Umaru Yar’Adua (a northerner) when Yar’Adua died in 2010, but the north felt it was “their turn” for the presidency and so did not expect Jonathan to vie – a gentleman’s agreement in Nigerian politics held that the presidency was to rotate between the north and south. 

He did anyway, and when his victory was announced in the 2011 election, there was rioting in the north, accompanied by the greatest bloodshed since the 1967-70 civil war. The rioting initially appeared directed against those in the Islamic establishment who had supported the Jonathan candidacy, and later degenerated into ethnic and religious killings.


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