Will Nigeria ever vote?

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The country prepares for new elections: terrorism, inflation and a growing population are the main issues

On 16 February, Nigeria should have held general elections to elect the country’s president and National Assembly. The vote has been postponed and will anyway take place during what is a delicate phase for the country within a critical context that is in continuous evolution due to the combination of security problems in the northeast, economic growth and inflation, the latter two being closely connected to the oil industry and the demographic boom forecast for the coming years.

This series of challenges will likely create a number of headaches for the next president of the federal republic, who should now be elected on 23 February and most probably will be one of the three candidates leading in the polls from the line up of representatives presented by the political parties on 7 October.

Heading the polls is the incumbent, president Muhammadu Buharai, in place since 2015 and running for a second mandate in the forthcoming elections for the All Progressive Congress (APC), the current governing party. The opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has selected the 71-year-old former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who is able to count on the support of the powerful business elite in Lagos that backs his proposals to privatize part of the state oil company, attract foreign investment and introduce a wide-ranging programme of liberalization.

A genuine outsider in the challenge to win the highest post in the Nigerian state is lawyer Obiageli Ezekwesili, who together with her colleague Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, launched the important awareness-raising campaign #BringBackOurGirls for the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014 by the Boko Harem militia in the village of Chibok. Ezekwesili had previously served as federal minister of solid minerals and then federal minister of education as well as being vice president of the Africa division of the World Bank from 2007 to 2012.

In Africa’s most populous nation, every election is a matter of considerable importance, but this time the stakes are particularly high. In 2015, the elections obtained a generally favourable evaluation from the United Nations observers in spite of technical problems due to the trialling of a new electronic voting system, accusations of fraud and the violence of Boko Harem. In the end Buhari prevailed over the then president Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP and the perceived reliability of the election result saw the country experience its first peaceful passage of power between the two main parties since the end of the military dictatorship in 1999. Given this context, the credibility of the coming elections, just as the political changes they could bring, will shape the future consolidation of democracy in Nigeria.

The March 2015 the elections were perceived by many as a sort of referendum on Jonathan, whose administration was considered to be corrupt and incapable of effectively dealing with the security threat from the Islamic extremists of Boko Harem or with the regional and community divisions that have afflicted the country since its independence. Buhari thus rose to the country’s highest institutional position in Abuja promising to eliminate the jihadist threat and to end the burgeoning corruption, but at the end of his mandate his efforts on these two fronts have had rather mixed results.

During Buhari’s four years in power a matter of particular importance was the approval by the National Assembly in March 2017 of the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB), considered an essential tool to update the obsolete Petroleum Act and to replace its provisions with a more thorough and up-to-date framework in line with global standards for this strategic sector.

In recent years, Nigeria, Africa’s leading exporter of crude oil, has experienced numerous difficulties in making its hydrocarbon industry function adequately. Serious problems facing the industry in Nigeria have included the drop in oil prices, the poor management of oil and gas pipelines as well as sabotage by militant groups active in the Niger Delta. For this reason, the federal government threw all of its weight behind the reform, which is intended to make the industry more efficient and more profitable.

Nevertheless, Buhari has so far refused to sign the PGIB for constitutional and legal reasons. This refusal has drawn bitter criticism from some Nigerian oil industry experts, not to mention the heads of the Department of Petroleum Resources in Abuja (DPR) and consultants from the NGO Nigeria Natural Resource Charter (NNRC), all of whom agree that the delay in implementing the law will block new investment in the oil and natural gas sectors in Nigeria.

As part of the fight against corruption, during the Buhari mandate the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the country’s leading anti-corruption agency, launched a series of high-profile investigations. However, the leadership of the PDP claim that many of the enquiries were politically motivated and that the dishonesty of functionaries linked to the majority party, the APC, often went unpunished.

On the issue of the fight against Boko Harem, the Nigerian security forces, which since July 2015 have been supported by the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), the joint intervention force involving troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin, have managed to significantly weaken the extremist movement. The coordinated offensive has reopened roads closed due to continuous attacks, pushed jihadist fighters away from urban areas and eliminated many high-profile figures in the movement, considerably reducing the size of the territory under its control and neutralizing the threat to the capital Abuja. Nevertheless, the Islamist group continues to terrorize vast areas of north-eastern Nigeria with various fatal attacks, which in recent months have seen a notable increase in frequency.

The issue of the country’s widespread ethnic and religious tensions represents another factor that should not be ignored. Disputes appear to be increasing in number and these often erupt in violence. In the region of the Middle Belt, continuous clashes between settled farmers, who are largely Christian, and Muslim migrating herders of Fulani ethnicity have caused thousands of fatalities and the displacement of 62,000 people in the central states of Kaduna, Nasarawa, Benue and Plateau. The government’s response, both at federal and state level, to what has become a serious threat to national security, has been proved to be completely insufficient, while the conflict over a simple dispute over the control of land has worsened constantly, above all in the northern part of the country.

The Buhari administration has also failed to significantly reduce the army’s use of extrajudicial killings and torture. At the end of October in Abuja, Nigerian soldiers killed 48 protestors from the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia organisation that since December 2015 has been the subject of fierce repression by the government. It is clear that under Buhari’s leadership the excesses of the armed forces have not been brought under control.

Considering this context, Buhari’s re-election can by no means be taken for granted. Nevertheless, whoever is successful at the ballot box will have to implement courageous reforms to tackle the complex combination of factors that have made corruption so endemic in the country. Other challenges include reinforcing the state of law in Nigeria and prosecuting those responsible for the abuses of the security forces  while also guaranteeing the resources and training necessary to improve their efficiency. But above all, he or she will have to succeed in implementing adequate measures to ensure greater stability in Nigeria.


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