3 big things to know about Nigeria’s presidential elections

Update: Just hours before polls were due to open, Nigeria’s election commission announced it was postponing the presidential election for one week, citing logistical concerns. The presidential and parliamentary votes will now be held on Saturday, February 23. Governorship, state assembly and federal area council elections will be held on Saturday, March 9.

The BBC reports that several of the commission’s offices around the country have been set on fire, resulting in thousands of electronic smart card readers and voter cards being destroyed. “There have also been claims of shortages of election material in some of the country’s 36 states,” the BBC notes.

Nigerians will get to choose a new president during the country’s national elections on Saturday, February 16.

Incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressive Congress (APC), will face off against Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and business man, who is representing the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). (There are also a slew of minor party candidates, but the election is really a contest between the two.)

Nigeria’s lagging economy and shaky security situation — due in part to the resurgent violence of militant groups such as Boko Haram — are among the issues dominating the race.

One major worry heading into Saturday’s elections is that the vote will be rigged, potentially to favor Buhari. Nigeria’s elections have also been marred by violence in the past, and while an expert currently in Nigeria told me the country is “cautiously optimistic” about peaceful voting, the threat of conflict breaking out remains.

Here’s a quick list of the key things to know about Saturday’s presidential election, and why it matters.

Meet the two major candidates: Buhari and Atiku

Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party attends an election campaign rally at the Ribadu Square in Yola, Nigeria, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

Lots of people are running for president, but only two seem to really have a chance: Buhari, and Atiku Abubakar, who most people just call “Atiku.”

Buhari is a former general who briefly ruled Nigeria in the early 1980s during a period of military dictatorship. He won a historic election in 2015 by promising to crack down on corruption and stamp out extremist groups such as Boko Haram.

The group gained international attention in 2014 after it abducted hundreds Nigerian schoolgirls, but has terrorized and killed thousands and displaced at least 2 million people in the northeastern part of the country since 2009.

Buhari’s victory in 2015 marked the first time an opposition candidate denied an incumbent president a second term, a turning point for Nigerian democracy.

Buhari says he’ll take Nigeria to the “next level” if he’s elected to a second term, but his four years in office have been somewhat lackluster: He has failed to deliver on his biggest promises about corruption and security, and the economy has struggled during his tenure.

Many of Buhari’s critics also see him as being a bit checked out, especially since the 76-year-old has been absent for long stretches due to poor health. (There was even a fake news story circulating that Buhari had died and been replaced by a body double, which he had to debunk.)

“Buhari’s tenure — most observers think that it has not been a good four years for Nigeria,” Ken Opalo, an associate professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, told me. “He’s been unwell, he hasn’t been as bold as he had promised in terms of needed reforms that could push the Nigerian economy, and despite his personal record as a non-corrupt person, there’s definitely lots of corrupt people around him.”

Atiku is positioning himself as the alternative to Buhari on the economy, asking Nigerians if they’re better off now than four years ago. As a successful businessman, his record is appealing to those who hope he can be a potential job creator, and embracing the slogan “get Nigeria working again.”

Atiku has vied for the presidency in the past; five times, to be exact. He’s also been dogged by allegations of corruption, and has been banned from traveling to the US due to his ties to corruption cases. (He received a temporary reprieve recently and was allowed to visit Washington, DC.)

Nigeria’s economy and security situation are big issues among voters

The Nigerian economy has struggled during Buhari’s tenure. Nigeria slipped into a recession in 2016, and though the economy has rebounded in some areas, poverty and joblessness remain high. Nigeria had the worst-performing stock market in the world last year.

Buhari is promising more state-driven reforms and public investment, whereas Atiku is promoting his business acumen and advocating for more private-sector initiatives, including privatizing Nigeria’s state-run oil corporation, which could shake up the oil-dependent economy.

Security problems also loom over the race. Buhari promised to uproot Boko Haram, and the terrorist group did lose a lot of its territory during his tenure, but the group and others like it are far from being eliminated.

Nigeria has also seen a recent uptick in violence. Boko Haram also splintered, giving birth to an ISIS-linked militant group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province. This group has staged multiple brazen attacks, including one on a Nigerian governor’s convoy this week near the border with Cameroon.

The central part of Nigeria is also becoming mired in clashes between farmers and herders over land for grazing; statics from Amnesty International say the conflict claimed more than 3,600 lives last year.

Regional and identity politics are also important factors in Nigeria’s election. Atiku and Buhari are both Muslims from the north of the country, and they’ve managed to form political alliances with other regions — Buhari with the southwest and Atiku with the southeast — to try to gain more support.

There are concerns over whether the elections will be free and fair

People holding a banner that reads “NBA must act now” protest the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, in Abuja, Nigeria,
People protest the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, in Abuja, Nigeria, on Monday, January 28, 2019.
AP Photo

It’s not really clear who is leading the race right now, but experts say Buhari, as the incumbent, is likely to have an edge.

There are also widespread fears that the election will be rigged.

Nigeria’s elections have been rigged in the past — that’s why Buhari’s win in 2015 seemed so remarkable. Atiku’s opposition party, PDP, has alleged wrongdoing, though Buhari has insisted he’s upholding free and fair elections.

Still, worries persist. A recent Guardian analysis of voters registered in Nigeria since January 2018 found that new voter registration increased by almost exactly the same percentage in all of Nigeria’s states. One analyst called that “statistically impossible,” which could indicate potential irregularities.

Another red flag: In January, weeks before the election, Buhari suspended the top judge on Nigeria’s Supreme Court over his alleged failure to declare some foreign assets. The suspended judge would have been in charge of ruling over any election-related disputes. But many critics — including Atiku — called the move anti-democratic.

Patrick Ukata, a lecturer at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington, said he had a sense that Atiku would win if the elections were free and fair. “No one in their right mind would vote for more of the same,” Ukata told me on Friday.

A rigged election could also potentially be dangerous. The 2015 election, which Buhari won as the opposition candidate, was largely peaceful — but in 2011, an estimated 800 people died in post-election violence.

Experts I spoke to said sporadic violence is always a risk, especially on the local level, but conflict on a national scale seems unlikely. For one, Atiku and Buhari are both from the same region, religion, and ethnic group, which make it less likely that anger over the elections will escalate into sectarian conflict.

Western governments, including the US, have encouraged the candidates to embrace the results, whatever the outcome. A US State Department spokesperson released a statement Friday saying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had spoken to both candidates and they had made a “public commitment to renounce violence and to accept the results of a credible process.”

Ukata said Nigeria seems cautiously optimistic that Saturday’s elections will be largely peaceful. But, he added, the “expectation of violence is always there.”

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