Nigerian Elections: a Divergent Violent Pattern and Future Uncertainty

Buhari After His Election Victory.

Nigeria just re-elected Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for his second four-year term. His opposition in the election, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), lost in his fifth bid for president. In Nigerian history, the election of incumbents is common, as only one failed reelection bid has occurred since the country returned to democracy in 1999. In fact, the challenger in that election was Buhari himself in 2015. Many observers had hoped that the 2015 election signaled a shift in Nigerian politics in which the electorate could better hold their politicians accountable and the rate of corruption allegations would decrease to rates seen in more stable democracies.

Unfortunately, Buhari’s first term was subpar. He failed to deliver on his signature campaign promises of improving Nigerian safety and combating corruption and the economy plummeted as his health deteriorated. Upon his election, the Nigerian people expected bold and swift military action against terrorist groups like Boko Haram, particularly in the North. However, what has transpired in the past four years has resulted in little increase to safety in Northern Nigeria. Initially, a coalition of Western African nations was able to seize most of Boko Haram’s territory, but a split in the terrorist group reignited violence in the region as different factions now jockey for power. In January, Buhari acknowledged setbacks in the fight against domestic terrorism and noted the fatigue among the country’s soldiers, who have suffered relentless terrorist attacks during Buhari’s term. As the North remained in the midst of violence, the South—the country’s economic center—hardly prospered. Following the same pattern as the fights in the north, Nigeria’s economy prospered when Buhari first took office, perhaps due to the idea that he would bring political stability to the country. In 2017, CNN Money rated Nigeria as the third best performing stock exchange. However, by the end of 2018, Nigeria had fallen to the worst stock market performance in Africa. All the while, the 76-year-old president’s health was deteriorating, and he had to take long stretches off from work.

Critics of Buhari’s reelection point to this as evidence of election corruption. Patrick Ukata, a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington, insinuated election corruption, claiming that “no one in their right mind would vote for more of the same.” Security concerns and economic downturns are often key reasons for curtailed political careers, but poor presidential performance hardly guarantees a failed reelection bid. The trend in Nigerian democracy stability is unclear because, although the circumstances of Buhari’s reelection are far from ideal and violence and corruption are not dissipating, the election was observed to be fairer than in the past.

The election started off on the wrong foot in February 2019, as it was postponed by one week. The postponement came at the order of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) when the chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, stated, “following a careful review of the implementation of the logistics and operational plan, and the determination to conduct free, fair and credible elections, the commission came to the conclusion that proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible.” This immediately sent waves throughout the Nigerian electorate and accusations of corruption ran wild. However, credible election observers backed the INEC, maintaining that the commission carried out its duty to the best of its ability. European Union election observers stated, “The Independent National Electoral Commission worked in a very difficult environment and made various improvements. However, its serious operational shortcomings reduced confidence in the process and put undue burden on voters.” The issue of the postponement has less to do with political corruption and is more connected to the legitimate logistical challenges that the commission faces. That is not to say that the postponement did not degrade the quality of the elections, but the source of its degradation was not corruption.

Another critical characteristic of past Nigerian elections has been violence surrounding election day. Election day violence shows democratic instability because it is revealing of limited faith in the Nigerian democratic process. In Muhammadu Buhari’s first election in 2011, “presidential voting left more than 800 people dead.” The high death count may be due to the change in the religion of the leaders. When Buhari was elected, he assumed the presidency from a Christian government, which unsettled many Christian Nigerians. In the presidential election before that in 2007, “Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 300 people were killed in violence linked to the 2007 elections.” Additionally, the gubernatorial election in 2015 saw over 100 election-related deaths. Although the violence dipped some in the most recent election, it is yet to be seen if this is just an exception in the larger historical trend of election violence or if the dip is the beginning of a less violent trend in Nigeria. Nevertheless, each election brings its own share of bloodshed, and the ones that bring more, like the elections in 2011, are usually connected to other geopolitical issues like ethnic and religious tension. Contentious Nigerian elections tend to exacerbate existing tensions, demonstrating that older ethnically-driven goals outweigh democratic goals among a significant portion of the Nigerian electorate.

As shown by the potential corruption and violence, Nigerian democracy does not appear to be becoming more stable. In the 2019 elections, voter turnout was a record low as less than 36% of the country turned out to vote– a downward trend from the last election cycle. A good deal of the blame for the lackluster turnout can be blamed on the election postponement, which forced voters to reschedule their plans. However, the continuous downward trend of voter turnout indicates a growing disillusionment with the electoral system. This is very concerning for the young democracy as the potential for a return of despotic rule grows as dictatorial resistance diminishes. Some may argue that the decrease in violence is an important metric that indicates the bettering health of stability in Nigeria, but the decrease is likely due to the fact that both candidates were Muslims. This helped to dampen ethnic tensions during election season. Therefore, it is unclear as to whether the decrease in violence is genuinely revealing of future stability or if it is simply reflective of an election that did not pit major religious factions against each other. On the positive side, it appears that corruption may have a diminished role in Buhari’s reelection. Unfortunately, the postponement likely distorted this improvement to the public, all but nullifying any potential progress in this realm as many people still feel as the election may have been engineered for one party or the other. Therefore, in order to prevent such an easy vehicle for corruption allegations and to improve the overall health of the democracy, a realistic step that Nigeria can take is to better fund the INEC and further develop it as a trustworthy institution. This would make future postponements more unlikely moving voter turnout rates higher. Better managed elections would maintain higher levels of political engagement in the public keeping the possibility of regression to dictatorship lower. Overall, the country has not seen rapid improvement in the stability of its elections as logistics, violence, and voter turnout have stagnated or worsened since the first elections in 1999. But, through a significant investment of time and resources to the INEC, Nigeria can improve the quality of election day and of its democracy as a whole by the next presidential election cycle.

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