Nigerians will head to the polls on March 28th, to pick between the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, and a former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari. A six week delay was announced this weekend, after police and army chiefs said they would not secure the poll in the north-east, where Boko Haram is waging a jihadi insurgency. The postponement is one of many reasons to worry about Nigeria’s ability to hold credible elections. Why does Africa’s biggest economy have such poor electoral choices?
Nigerians politely refer to their democracy as “young”. It has been only 16 years since power was handed back to a civilian government. Before then, the country suffered a series of coups and spent longer under military dictatorships than as a democracy. Regional tensions have been rife since Britain, Nigeria’s colonial master, united different linguistic, ethnic and religious groups with little in common into a single country. Hundreds of thousands of people died in a civil war in the 1960s, when the south-eastern portion of the country broke off to form the Republic of Biafra, a short-lived independent state that was forcibly reunited with the rest of the country. The nation, divided between a predominantly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, still struggles to behave as a single unit today. Poor education and a lack of “ideas” politics mean that many people still vote along religious and ethnic lines. Mr Jonathan, a Christian, gleans great support from his home region in the oil-producing Niger Delta. His opponent, a Muslim northerner, is hero-worshipped in the north.
These elections pose a challenge not just for religious reasons, but because they are the first since 1999 in which the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has faced an opposition that stands a chance of winning. Many Nigerians are desperate for change. Mr Jonathan’s government is seen as being the most corrupt yet. Billions of dollars in oil revenue have mysteriously disappeared, leaving the population with little to show for their resource wealth. Thousands have died in the north, as Boko Haram wages its maniacal campaign to establish an Islamic state. The government has seen the northerners’ plight as little more than a political inconvenience. Even the once-bright economy has run into the doldrums as oil prices have fallen. Yet a vote for Mr Buhari carries its own risks. He is tough on corruption and security. But his brief rule in the early 1980s was characterised by unlawful arrests, stifled speech and mad economics. Many feel he is now too old to govern. Worse, his All Progressives Change (APC) party, which was formed in 2013, is a platform for dozens of the old political elite. Observers would be forgiven for doubting their willingness to improve the broken political system.
Polling is too close to call. Most analysts expect the ruling party to edge it, not least because it has greater means to rig the outcome. Violence looks inevitable. Legal challenges are likely from whoever loses, particularly because millions of voters will be disenfranchised in the war-ridden north-east. More worrying would be a flat-out rejection of the outcome. The APC has said that it would form a parallel government if the elections appeared to be fixed—and even that assumes that they will go ahead at all. The military’s influence over the electoral delay was an ominous echo of the days of the junta. A second delay would break a constitutional requirement for voting a minimum of 30 days before the current government’s term expires on May 29th. Such an outcome would end any semblance of democracy in Africa’s most populous nation.