A campaign banner in support of President Goodluck Jonathan next to a banner in support of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari
A campaign banner in support of President Goodluck Jonathan next to a banner in support of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his running mate Yemi Osinbajo, Lagos January 21, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye / Courtesy Reuters

Americans tend to think of elections as the apex of democracy. But in some cases they are the opposite. In countries with weak democratic cultures and lax rule of law, elections can be destabilizing. They can promote violence and undermine good governance. 

Nigeria is a case in point. The success of democracy in the country, which has a population of 177 million and is home to Africa’s largest economy, matters for the whole continent. Yet with national elections scheduled for February 14, anxiety is high. The recent global collapse of oil prices hit the country hard, since oil contributes more than 70 percent of the government’s revenue and more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange. The Lagos stock exchange is in the doldrums, and between October 2014 and the end of January, the Nigerian naira has fallen from 155 to the U.S. dollar to 191.30. The bad news keeps coming: the radical Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram appears to be gaining strength, the country’s political class is badly fragmented, and popular confidence in the government’s ability to provide security is eroding.

It is no wonder that some in Nigeria are feeling a distinct nostalgia for 2011, when sitting President Goodluck Jonathan defeated Muhammadu Buhari—a retired general who took power in a 1983 coup and ruled until 1985—at the polls. (Elected vice president in 2007, Jonathan initially became president in 2010 upon the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua.) At the time, international observers proclaimed the 2011 elections a dramatic improvement over Nigeria’s 2007 elections (a low bar) and were notably optimistic about the country’s future. If they had been paying close attention to the vote, though, they might not have been. In many ways, the 2011 elections set the stage for the current national crisis. 

Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, with each vote power has alternated between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south, a strategy adopted to forestall the political polarization among the religiously distinct (but not religiously uniform) regions. Yet power alternation was a matter of practice, not of law.

In 2011, it was the Muslim north’s turn to hold the presidency. But Jonathan, a Christian from the south, ran anyway, despite private assurances that he would wait until 2015 because it was still the north’s turn. On both sides, the subsequent electoral campaigns were marred by ethnic and religious appeals. Jonathan received support from parts of the traditional Islamic establishment, including the sultan of Sokoto, the then emir of Kano, and the emir of Zaria, but many people in the north suspected that these figures had been bribed. Despite Jonathan’s support from these and a few other traditional Islamic rulers, the Muslim Buhari won all of the predominately Muslim states in the federation. Jonathan carried the rest of the vote (with one exception, which supported a third candidate), in some cases by margins of more than 90 percent. 

Many in the north called foul. Blatant rigging has long been a characteristic of Nigerian elections. But, in 2011, it was less obvious. Polling was better than it had ever been, with more polling stations open on time and supplied with ballots than ever before. However, ballot box stuffing remained. Rigging primarily happened at collating stations, which often operated after dark without international election observers present. The rigging was aimed at ensuring that Jonathan fulfilled the two constitutional requirements to claim electoral victory: win 50 percent plus one of the total ballots cast, and win a quarter of the vote in two-thirds of the states. (The requirement for the former is more ambiguous than the latter in Nigeria’s very long and complex constitution.)

There was no attempt to rig Jonathan into victory in majority-Muslim states in the north. Instead, the rigging there appears to have been designed to ensure that he received a quarter of the vote. In those areas where Jonathan was strongly supported, rigging was designed to pile up an enormous margin of victory in order to foreclose any possibility of a runoff. When Jonathan’s victory was announced after the count, rioting in the north followed, resulting in the greatest bloodshed since the 1967–70 civil war. The violence initially appeared to be directed against those in the Islamic establishment and the ruling party who supported the Jonathan candidacy, but later degenerated into widespread ethnic and religious killings. In the end, even after the violence subsided, Nigeria was split between a Muslim north and a Christian south, an outcome that Nigerians had long sought to avoid. The stage was set for a 2015 electoral contest along regional and religious lines.

The upcoming presidential election in February is a rematch between the Christian Jonathan against the Muslim Buhari. There is anecdotal evidence that, once again, the campaigns are appealing to ethnic and religious identities. However, unlike 2011, the results of 2015 are not preordained. This time, pressured by the government’s inability to defeat Boko Haram, falling oil prices, and a perception that the Jonathan administration is weak, the political class is more fractured across the nation, making election rigging more difficult.

In that sense, the 2015 elections are “real” in a way that elections have not previously been. Wild cards include how elections will occur in the three states that are under a state of emergency and whether the estimated one million internally displaced persons and refugees will be able to vote, as Nigerian law requires that voters cast their ballots in their own specified local government area. In the past, these populations supported Buhari, but if they can’t vote, Jonathan will have an advantage. On the other hand, Buhari seems to have widespread support in areas outside his traditional political base in the north.

An incumbent Nigerian president has significant advantages: he is at the center of extensive patronage networks that are dependent on him; he has access to the government’s oil revenue; and he largely controls the election and ballot counting. No matter the depredations of Boko Haram, a declining economy, and little public confidence in his administration, in other words, Jonathan is likely, if not certain, to win. 

No matter which candidate is declared victorious, though, there are plenty of reasons for the loser to reject the results. Buhari ran for the presidency in 2003, 2007, and 2011. Each election was disputed, and Buhari turned to the courts for recourse. In every case, the courts found for the victorious candidate. Following the judiciary’s decision in 2011, Buhari vowed never again to go to the bench to resolve a disputed election. More recently, the secretary general of the chief opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, said that if the Independent National Elections Commission declares Jonathan victorious in elections that are not credible, his party will establish a “parallel government.” On the other hand, some of the militants in Nigeria’s oil patch who are close to Jonathan have threatened mayhem if their candidate loses. No matter who is declared the victor, then, Boko Haram will likely try to take advantage of the likely political uncertainty.

Bearing all of this in mind, anxiety about Nigeria’s upcoming elections is not misplaced. Come February 14, it is likely that democracy in Africa will take a step backward.

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  • JOHN CAMPBELL, the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, is Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York.
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