Nigeria’s elections are now only 5 days away. That the wait has been markedly anxious is an understatement. When they were postponed just a week before they were initially scheduled, the narrative offered by the government seemed farfetched.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party, under its first credible electoral threat since multi-party politics began, were delaying the elections in order to coordinate a 6-week offensive against Boko Haram. The Islamist insurgency had been flagrantly barbaric, thriving whilst countless were killed, kidnapped and displaced, but effectively ignored by an inept military response. Yet now suddenly the primary concern, unsurprisingly, right at the point when it was finally fathomable that this was an election they could lose.
But the narrative has changed since then. The perennial threat is no longer in control of vast territory. The coalition of military forces from surrounding countries have made striking gains, suspiciously, just when the Nigerian electorate’s wishes have the most purchase.
The APC presidential candidate, ex-General Muhammadu Buhari, is a throwback from a largely pernicious military past line of Army generals. But the past is inadvertently helping him now. The converted democrat with a reputation of ‘no-nonsenseness’ is closer to power in spite of his rebranding, not as a result of it. He is a change candidate, and though the change may itself provide unforeseen challenges, public concerns over corruption, the economy and the insurgency have given it traction.
The electoral commission, INEC, chaired by the evergreen Attahiru Jega (a man whose silver goatee is an example to goatees everywhere), has overseen a significant change in the method of voting. The innovated PVC (permanent voter card) system is reliant on the possession of a card and on fingerprint recognition technology. It is designed to make the results more credible, and inevitably, has made the man with the silver goatee a target for vested interests too used to getting their way.
The process of distributing the PVCs has had logistical challenges. Only 81% have been collected, whilst people have complained that their cards are not yet ready. In the last election in 2011, mystery votes diminished the credibility of the result, but even if the votes are cast more efficiently, the winner will likely only be confirmed after the courts have settled the inevitable legal challenge. It is unlikely that a conclusive result will emerge by 29th March.
In 2011, electoral gains for both candidates were entrenched along the classic Nigerian fault-lines. The ‘largely Muslim north’ and ‘the largely Christian south’ is a useful cliche for gauging the basic dynamics, but it will prove less so this time. Buhari won in the 14 most Northern States last time round. His share of the vote in Lagos and the southwest was barely registrable. But he will likely make significant gains this time.
Credible polling data is thin and often partisan, but have on the whole given his prospects real credence. The Punch Newspaper, the highest selling publication in Nigeria and one of the most neutral, yesterday predicted safe wins for Buhari in 15 states. With Jonathan safe on 14, the swing states along the central belt will be pivotal.
Plausibly, the APC could win in the three most crucial states and still lose the election. Consolidated support in Lagos, Kano and Abuja make the outcome uncertain, but broadly southern and southeastern support for the PDP is still formidable.
It should be said that a close result, even in defeat, would be a success for the APC, though they will not see it that way. The initially fragile coalition of four small, motley parties is holding together as its prospects are on the up. However, should they fail to win, the frictions currently at bay may surface. How they progress as an opposition will be either be dramatic or impressive.
The risk of violence after next Saturday’s vote is not trivial. 800 people died in post-election violence in 2011, with 80% of the violence in Kaduna. Political tensions are more severe as the result is remarkably uncertain. The election campaign for politicians, is as much as anything an exercise in blind triumphalism. Their over-plugged certainty of victory is dangerous in a country where apathy in politics is less problematic than zeal. Militias in the Delta, the home region of the President, are among others unlikely to be philosophical in defeat.
Ending on a positive note, should the elections proceed as planned with minimal military interference and a credible result, it would set a remarkable precedent. If power, be it transferred between parties or retained, remains stable, it would illuminate under-sold characteristics of Nigerian democracy: tumultuous and sometimes volatile, but also resolute and maturing. It would strike some way at the global pessimism of the functionality of Nigerian politics, and would be a huge and defining leap forward.
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