Nigeria goes to the polls on 28 March to vote in the most contested presidential and parliamentary elections in Nigerian political history. Fearing an electoral defeat, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan colluded with military elites to postpone the elections on 7 February. Electoral security concerns and the need to defeat Boko Haram were the official reasons cited. This postponement has brought some stability to Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) campaign, allowing the disbursement of more funds as well as enabling the government to gain some vote-winning victories against Boko Haram in the North.
The security situation still remains highly unstable; on 25 March it was reported that Boko Haram militants had kidnapped more than 400 women and children from Damasak, a northern Nigerian town only very recently liberated by Chadian and Nigerian soldiers.
The postponement stalled the mounting momentum for the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. Despite this setback, however, feedback from sources as well as polls conducted in Nigeria indicate that the majority of electoral support remains with Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC). Buhari is set to win the presidential election by a slim margin if the PDP respect the democratic process. A free and fair election, however, remains unlikely and there are two interlocking and highly fluid factors that will influence the election outcome:
(1) PDP and Military Efforts to Influence Voting
The mainstream press has ignored one crucial issue when characterising the election as simply a contest between Buhari and Jonathan: commercial and political sources in Nigeria stress that Buhari is also competing against many members of the corrupt military elite, all of whom fear a Buhari victory. These military figures may collaborate with Jonathan to influence voting and, if necessary, derail the whole process if they feel the result is going against the PDP. Buhari’s electoral promise to launch a thorough forensic audit of military expenditures over the past five years has served to further alienate these long-standing and powerful military establishment figures.
Press commentators and political forecasters have already been preemptively describing the 2015 elections as the most free and fair held in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999. While comprehensive voting reforms and the relative impartiality of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will make large-scale fraud more difficult to engineer, in reality these analysts are underestimating what can be achieved at the local level.
On voting day the security apparatus will be deployed in its entirety and the PDP will target swing states in the southwest and central parts of the country as areas where voting can most easily be influenced. Both carrot and stick measures may be employed to sway voting patterns; as tried and successfully tested at the Ekiti gubernatorial election in June 2014. (The Ekiti State governorship (‘gubernatorial’) by-election in June 2014 saw the PDP surprise political analysts, partly by a successful campaign of coercement and patronage which unseated APC governor Kayode Fayemi.) Apart from in the northwest and northeast where support for Buhari is bellicose, there are a significant number of apathetic voters who may be vulnerable to last-minute bribes and/or coercion.
(2) The APC Response
The course of the election process will then be heavily influenced by the APC and their supporters’ response. The perceived level of foul play as referred to above will be crucial but, if provoked, a violent reaction could serve the interests of both the PDP and the military leaders. If the country erupts into violence (e.g., because of perceived vote rigging) it will give the military the mandate they require to justify an intervention. According to senior APC sources this is the worst-case scenario, as the elections would effectively be abandoned, and a quasi-military interim government would be formed instead. This government would be formed on the premise of bringing stability and would pledge to hold elections within two years.
This is partly why Buhari has discarded the fiery rhetoric that has accompanied his previous election campaigns. In 2011 Buhari called for his supporters to remain in polling stations and attack any suspected vote riggers. In response to the postponement in February, however, Buhari demonstrated a more stoic attitude, calling on supporters to respect the decision and sit tight until 28 March.
Unfortunately, the risk of violence is very high. Riots are likely in both the North and in the oil-critical Delta. Indeed a Buhari victory will trigger considerable disruption in the Delta as militants damage pipelines in a demonstration to the North that they control Nigeria’s resources. If elected, Buhari will need to tread carefully as there is scope for conflict in the Delta in the longer run. The oil-producing region is where the PDP and Jonathan remain most popular, due in no small part to the significant financial settlement made to the militants.