Party like its 1999

Nigerians have fought for democracy before, and we shouldn’t underestimate civil society’s willingness to defend it.

General Buhari at a campaign rally in January 2015 (Wiki Commons).

Nigeria’s elections, originally scheduled for Valentine’s Day, have now been postponed, for six weeks. One thing is certain though: the two leading candidates are neck and neck according to an Afrobarometer poll released at the end of January. Muhammadu Buhari, a former dictator who ended Nigeria’s second attempt at democracy with a coup in 1983, and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan are polling at 42% each, with 11%of voters undecided. Local conflict resolution efforts and western policy planners have focused on two unpleasant scenarios, either one accelerating a downward spiral. How much fear is driving forecasting?

In the first outcome, Buhari, a northern Muslim wins and there is violence in the south, especially in the Niger Delta where former rebels in the oil-producing region pick up arms again. Upwards of 36,000 militants have been part of an amnesty program since 2010, and a large proportion of them are ethnic Ijaws, like the president. One former militant leader, “Tompolo,” threatened that Nigeria would break up if Buhari won.  Tompolo has much to lose since he has received hundreds of millions of dollars in security contracts from the Jonathan government. Asari-Dokubu of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force said ex-militants “would return to their old ways should President Jonathan lose the election.”

When a powerful former minister of defense recently called for the arrest of Tompolo and other militants over such statements, prominent cultural groups such as Ohanaeze Ndi’gbo among the Igbos in the east, and Oduda People’s Congress (OPC) among the Yorubas in the west lent political cover to the militants’ position by saying – perhaps clarifying – that if the election is not free and fair, the south should reject the results.

It’s the tightest election since the 1999 transition. The opposition All Progressive’s Congress (APC) has successfully capitalized on several tiers of frustration: political candidates have been locked out of elections through corrupt primaries for years by the ruling People’s Democratic Party and its rigid rules of geographical rotation; governors have fought the federal government over unfunded mandates, borders, and diversion of oil revenue allocations; and 74 % of ordinary citizens say the country is overall going in the wrong direction (up from 70% two years ago).  The APC’s electoral coalition includes powerful governors in critical states, including Lagos and Rivers in the south, and Kano in the north. Even the Niger Delta militants are divided over the campaign: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) endorsed Buhari last month, beginning its statement by saying not a single government official has been successfully prosecuted for corruption under Jonathan’s administration. “No wonder,” wrote the group’s leader Jomo Gbomo in an email, “the once respected Nigerian Military has been reduced to a ragtag Army by the Boko Haram Terrorists.”

The second scenario, with a Jonathan victory, simmers in a similar cynicism about Nigeria. Jonathan’s plan to campaign on economic growth, improved infrastructure, and some increased diversification of Nigeria’s oil-based economy was interrupted in April 2014 with the kidnapping by Boko Haram of over 200 girl students (remember the #Bring BackOurGirls campaign; they’re still missing). The fear here is that northerners might believe they have been denied their “turn” to rule since Jonathan had his chance. In fact 800 people were killed in the wake of Jonathan’s 2011 electoral victory. Moreover, escalating terrorism in three northeastern states despite a federal state of emergency there has contributed to not only general insecurity, but also a sense of disenfranchisement. Due to logistical and legal barriers, over a million internally displaced persons may be unable to vote, and Boko Haram’s violence may significantly deter turnout in northern states aligned with the opposition. And if terrorism doesn’t interfere with voting, then the security services might: “There are strong cases of partisan control of security institutions in the country,” warned a leading human rights organization in December. “The Federal government has been very partisan in its use of the Police, Military and the DSS.”  Nearly 50 percent of Nigerians fear “personally becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence” during this election, according to Afrobarometer. I witnessed some of this interference directly, during a recent trip to opposition-controlled Rivers State, where the police have been physically blocking the state House of Assembly from meeting.

In this context the APC might take to the streets if the election is deemed neither free nor fair. Though such mass mobilization does add an element of uncertainty, the west should keep in mind the grassroots’ essential role in bringing down the dictatorship in the 1990s, defending term limits in 2006, advancing essential electoral reforms in 2010, and getting President Jonathan to focus on Boko Haram. Buhari has populist appeal among those nostalgic – perhaps naively so – for the law and order of “soft” authoritarianism, as well as among northerners who feel excluded from emirate and elite patronage structures (the “talakawa,” in Hausa). But it would be a mistake to take this as a basis for collapse. At the time of this writing, pro-democracy organizations are outside the electoral commission, demanding that the commissioner not give in to calls to delay the election. The Transition Monitoring Group, the Enough is Enough Campaign, Occupy Nigeria, and other groups are prepared to defend Nigeria’s democratic progress.  Nigerians have fought for democracy before, and we shouldn’t underestimate civil society’s willingness and capacity to peacefully defend it.

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