Nigeria votes: What could go terribly wrong – or wonderfully right – with the election

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Jonathan gave more space to democracy. If Buhari loses opposition strength in parliament would still hold government to account. Good for Nigeria.

NIGERIA is voting Saturday for the president and parliament in its mostly closely fought election after a campaign that’s been dominated by a slowing economy and a war against Islamist Boko Haram militants.

The election is testing the stability of a country with an almost $500 billion economy, Africa’s biggest, that’s been hit by a fall in prices for oil, its main export, and a weakening currency. 

Attacks by the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, have killed at least 1,000 civilians this year alone, according to Human Rights Watch, and prompted a six-week vote delay after the government said it needed time to subdue the insurgents.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a 57-year-old Christian from the oil-rich Niger River delta in the southeast, is the candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has governed Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999. They’re facing a united opposition led by former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old northern Muslim who lost four years ago.

“The defining difference between now and the last election in 2011 is that then, there were so many opposition parties, none of them could win,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a research group based in the capital, Abuja, said by phone. “Now the opposition is formidable; the whole dynamic is completely different.”

The clouds

Whoever is inaugurated on May 29 must contend with an oil price that’s fallen about 48% since June and the naira’s 18% decline against the dollar in the past six months, the second-steepest drop among 24 African currencies tracked by Bloomberg. Nigeria, which pumped almost 2 million barrels a day last month, relies on crude for two-thirds of government revenue and 90% of its export income.

The International Monetary Fund cut its 2015 growth forecast for Nigeria to 4.8%, about half the average rate over the past 15 years. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country on March 20 one level to B+, four levels below investment grade.

The opposition All Progressives Congress describes Jonathan’s government as corrupt, incompetent and a failure in dealing with Boko Haram. 

Boko Haram leader Shekau Abubakar: When he is finally defeated, rides a lot on the outcome of the election. (Photo AFP).

The administration has been unable to find more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by the insurgents in the town of Chibok in April last year, and is relying on the armies of neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon to help fight the militants.

Nigeria’s military said on Friday that it retook the northeastern town of Gwoza from Boko Haram, expelling the rebels from one of their remaining strongholds.

The next president will have to deal with a battered economy, and Boko Haram could still be a headache. A disputed result, could mean the eventual winner wouldn’t have the credibility to deal with either problems, and Nigeria could be even in a worse situation.

Threat of violence

The PDP says Buhari is too old and that his time as military ruler was marred by human rights abuses.

The campaigns were often marred by violence: A disputed result could just light more fires. (Photo AFP).

The tight race and tensions deepened by the delay have raised concern that the defeated candidate’s supporters will react violently as happened after the 2011 vote, when 800 people died. The most recent independent poll, a survey by Afrobarometer conducted in December, put both candidates on 42% support.

Rigging allegations

“Whether the loser accepts the result is far more important than who the winner is,” Ayodele Salami, who oversees about $200 million of Nigerian equities as chief investment officer of London-based Duet Asset Management, said by phone. “There will probably be the obligatory refusal to accept the result and allegations that the vote was rigged.”

The authorities have closed land and sea borders until midnight on Saturday, and the army said it’s ready to combat troublemakers by using “organized violence.”

Jonathan’s supporters have sought to use the courts to derail Buhari’s campaign, alleging that he presented forged school records in his nomination papers. A Federal High Court in Abuja adjourned a hearing in the suit until April 22.

They have also asked the courts to stop the Independent National Electoral Commission from using biometric voter-card readers that it says are necessary to stop fraud. About 56 million of the 68 million registered voters have picked up their cards, according to INEC.

All these factors mean an inconclusive or thin victory – especially for the Opposition – will be rejected by the PDP. And the APC could take to violence to lay claim to power.

Investor confidence

To win, a presidential contender must take at least 50% of the total vote while winning a quarter of the ballots in a minimum of 24 of the 36 states. If none of the 14 candidates secure such a victory, a run-off would be held within seven days.

Many Nigerians say they want a government that delivers the basics: security, electricity, water and the chance of earning money.

Oil, which accounts for nearly 90% of Nigeria’s export revenues, took a big hit to its price. The election could further dent, or rejuvenate, investor confidence. (Photo AFP).

South Africa, with less than a third of Nigeria’s 170 million people, is able to produce 10 times more electricity than the West African nation. The United Nations Children’s Fund says 70 million Nigerians lack access to safe water.

“The elections are one side of the story, but the falling oil price and its impact on currency, consumer and government spending are also crucial factors hurting investor confidence,” Anna Rosenberg, associate practice leader for sub-Saharan Africa at Washington-based Frontier Strategy Group, said by e-mail.

Fleeing in fear

Nigerians relocated in their tens of thousands to return home to vote in presidential elections, a government official said, with many of the travelers saying they were leaving regions because of a fear of violence.

Large movements of people, which first began three days ago, heightened on Friday, Jonas Agwu, commander of the Federal Road Safety Corps in charge of the capital, Abuja, and Niger state, said by phone.

Many Nigerians, their nerves frayed by violence and destruction, have fled their work places to the safely of their hometowns to wait out the poll. (Photo AFP).

Buhari’s loss to Jonathan in 2011 was followed by violence, mainly in northern Nigeria, in which at least 800 were killed and 75,000 displaced from their homes.

“The last election was a good teacher when people, mostly southerners, were killed during protests over Buhari’s loss,” Sam Adelae, a Christian from the southwest, said while waiting at the bus station in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram Islamist militant group. “The best place to be at this time is home in the southwest with my family.”

Deserted streets

In the southern oil industry center of Port Harcourt, Victoria Street, which is dominated by Muslim northerners, was largely deserted on Friday as many inhabitants had travelled north to vote and be safe, according to Ibhrahim Adamu, a currency dealer on the street.

Africa’s most populous country of more than 170 million people is almost evenly split between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south.

Ethnic and sectarian tensions have risen in recent years on the back of Boko Haram militant attacks aimed at imposing Islamic law, or Sharia.

“My home office told us we were free to leave Maiduguri because of the expected violence during the elections,” Abraham Idowu, who described himself as a Pentecostal Christian pastor, said in an interview Friday in the Borno state capital. “Members of our family are not happy with us being here for the elections.”

In the central city of Jos, which has witnessed bouts of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims for more than a decade, shops run by ethnic Igbo and Yoruba traders from the south were mostly under lock by Friday, indicating their owners had travelled.

Shops and banks in the northern city of Kaduna also closed early and most streets were deserted.

Nigeria’s unity, already frayed, could be further tested by the outcome of this vote.

A rejuvenated Jonathan

In the period following the postponement of the election, the Jonathan government has showed unusual zeal to deliver; pushing ahead on several stalled infrastructure projects, marshaling the resources necessary to push back Boko Haram, and showing empathy and support for victims of the militants which a u-turn on is earlier scornful attitude.

A victorious Jonathan might build on these actions if it wins, taking a very close as a warning that time is running out for PDP dominance if it doesn’t improve its record.

The Buhari hope

On the other hand, Buhari goes into the election with the image of a honest doer.

“Buhari is believed to have integrity and people believe that, given his military background, he is likely to approach the Boko Haram issue more effectively,” Olusegun Sotola, research fellow at the Lagos-based Institute for Public Policy Analysis, said by phone.

Nigerians MPs climb over the fence into Parliament last November after security forces locked the gates and lobbed tear gas: Though slated as corrupt, they are also among the mostly feisty. A evenly-matched house would be great for Nigerian democracy. (Photo AFP).

Buhari is seen as more likely to end the war, and to better tackle corruption in Nigeria than Jonathan. His victory would bring hope that some of the countries endemic problems will finally be tackled and buoy investor confidence.

The democracy dividend

Jonathan “has given more freedom to democratic processes, without which an opposition party like the APC wouldn’t have been able to emerge. To an extent, he hasn’t been meddling,” Sotola said.

And a the hard-fought election may end up benefiting Nigeria, according to Imad Mesdoua, political analyst at London-based consultancy Africa Matters.

“Even if the APC loses, its representation in parliament will mean it can really work at holding the government to account,” he said by phone. “It’s healthy for Nigerian democracy to have a strong opposition.”

Whoever wins, Nigerian democracy might just get a shot in the arm. 

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