With less than a month to go before its national elections, Nigeria is awash with serious problems which are not likely to go away soon. Africa’s largest and most important country is going through an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous period that could over the next two months see the already high level of violence spike even further and spread to other parts of the country.
Nigeria is facing three major challenges: cascading insecurity in the northeast; contentious national elections in mid- February; and growing economic pressures due to the precipitous drop in global oil prices. These issues are generating renewed uncertainty about the country’s long term stability.
Given Nigeria’s regional political and economic importance, the international community needs to a raise Nigeria on the global priority list and actively engage and assist the country in trying to navigate the turbulent period that lies ahead.
Insecurity on the Rise
Boko Haram, the Islamic religious sect that has terrorized northern Nigeria for the past five years, has recently stepped up its operations in the north eastern part of the country. In 2014, Boko Haram killed over 11,000 people, carried out a high profile kidnapping 276 school girls, assassinated dozens of government officials and attacked numerous military bases.
Several recent attacks demonstrate Boko Haram’s strength, capacity and changing tactics. On December 29, Boko Haram captured a Nigerian military base in the far northeastern corner of the country, killing dozens of soldiers and civilians and capturing more arms and munitions. The base was intended to garrison a multinational force with troops from Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
On January 3, 2015, militants stormed the town of Baga, destroying homes, shops and leaving over 500 people dead. During this same period the group carried out several high profile suicide bombings, deploying for the first time young girls to carry out the attacks.
Boko Haram is not going away any time soon. Taking a tactic out of the playbook of Iraq’s Islamic State (ISIS), Boko Haram has set up a caliphate in Borno state, where it controls an estimated forty percent of the territory. The government’s efforts to turn back the onslaught have proven ineffective, and the level of violence has risen and spread further across the north every year since Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, was killed in 2009.
Nigeria’s once strong military has sustained repeated defeats at the hands of Boko Haram and is suffering from low morale, a shortage of arms and poor senior leadership. The current situation is unlikely to change and the level of violence will almost certainly intensify as Nigeria’s elections draw closer.
Presidential Elections Will Increase Tensions
Nigeria is scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections on February 14, 2015. The country’s presidential contest, between President Goodluck Jonathan and opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, will increase political tensions across Nigeria and contribute to further unrest in the northeast. Although President Jonathan appeared to have a strong edge at the start of the campaign, the elections is now expected to be very close and hotly contested.
President Jonathan, a southerner and devout Christian, believes he can win re-election and appears determined to do so. The President has the power of incumbency on his side as well as substantial financial resources. His party, the People’s Democratic Party, has the advantage of having the only national political party organization in the country.
President Jonathan also stands to benefit from the unrest in the north. His critics say the conflict in the northeast will reduce voter turnout for his opponent — Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim politician. There are also concerns that Jonathan will use the country’s security forces to help turn the election in his favor. In late November, Nigerian security forces illegally prevented members of the national assembly from entering their chambers.
Buhari, who is running for the fourth time, believes he has finally positioned himself to win. Unlike recent previous presidential contests, there are only two candidates on the ballot, and a once divided and fractious opposition has closed ranks behind Buhari. Many of the leading northern politicians are supporting him, including his two most prominent political rivals — Kanu Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso and former vice president Atiku Abubakar.
To the surprise of many, Buhari has also gained some traction in the southern part of the country, where he has long been viewed with great suspicion. His selection of Yemi Osibajo, a widely respected lawyer from Lagos, as his vice presidential running mate appears to have gone over well. In addition to his legal credentials, Osibajo is a senior pastor at a large evangelical Christian church and a member of a prominent Yoruba royal family. Osibajo’s presence on the ticket is likely to divide Nigeria’s large evangelical community which has traditionally voted for Jonathan.
Buhari has also allied himself to some of Jonathan’s strongest political critics in the southeastern part of the country where the president has traditionally drawn his greatest support. The popular governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, has come out strongly for Buhari saying that Nigeria needs change in Abuja, that the violence and instability in the north threatens all of the country, and that Buhari is the only person who can put an end to the Boko Haram crisis.
As February 14 approaches, the prospects of a very close contest are increasing– and so are the prospects for post-election violence. If President Jonathan should win narrowly, with less than the number of displaced eligible voters in the north who are unable to cast their ballots, widespread and sustained violence is almost certain to erupt.
Credible reports of vote rigging and blatant interference in the electoral process by security forces will also spark northern violence. Although some observers predict violence in the southeast if Jonathan loses, no one expects those protests to generate the type of reaction expected in the north.
Economic Pressures Mounting
Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy is going through a turbulent period. The sharp drop in global oil prices has had a negative impact on the country’s entire economy and clouded the outlook for 2015. For most of the past decade, Nigeria’s economy has been growing at seven percent a year, but that has come to an end. Declining oil revenues have put additional stress on President Jonathan’s government as he prepares for elections and deploys additional resources to battle Boko Haram in the north.
Oil production accounts for thirty five percent of GDP, eighty percent of government revenue and ninety percent of the country’s foreign exchange. The value of the naira has fallen by seventeen percent, forcing the government to devalue the currency. Nigeria’s benchmark interest rate has also gone up to thirteen percent and the country’s once booming stock market has lost thirty percent of its share value. The government has reduced its spending and placed new foreign currency restrictions on companies. With Nigeria importing over eighty percent of what it consumes, including large quantities of wheat and rice, inflation and the cost of living are rising.
Nigeria is Too Big and Important to Ignore
Although weighed down by multiple challenges, Nigeria is Africa’s preeminent country and largest democracy. With a population of 177 million people, it is Africa’s most populous state, the seventh largest in the world, and the world’s fifth largest Muslim country. Nigeria is also Africa’s leading economy with a GDP substantially greater than that of either of its two closest rivals — South Africa and Egypt.
Nigeria is a player in the global petroleum market. In addition to being Africa’s biggest oil producer, it is the sixth largest oil exporter in the world. In West Africa, Nigeria is the top economic and commercial power, dominating the banking, insurance, telecommunications, transportation and small scale manufacturing sectors. And even though its troops have performed poorly at home, Nigeria is one of the UN’s top ten Peacekeeping contributor nations.
What happens in Nigeria directly impacts not only the people of that country but the entire West African sub region and the larger international community. If Nigeria faces a crisis like the one that followed Kenya’s disastrous 2007 presidential elections or is overwhelmed by further Boko Haram advances, there is no international power capable of responding quickly or effectively.
Washington and London Have a Role To Play
Given the likelihood of a close and highly-contested election followed by significant violence throughout the north if Buhari loses, the United States, Great Britain and the European Union need to be more openly and actively engaged in working with Nigeria to navigate the difficult period it is going through. The first order of business is to help ensure that there is a free, fair and peaceful election. A flawed election that ends in violence will exacerbate the security problems in the northeast and further undermine the country’s tightening economy.
Washington, London, and Brussels should be acting now. In Washington, the Obama Administration should be calling publicly for:
- Peaceful, transparent and well organized elections;
- Full and immediate funding of the Independent National Election Commission’s (INEC) budget;
- Expedited passage by the Nigerian National Assembly of legislation allowing eligible northern voters who have been displaced to cast their ballots outside of their home states;
- Assurance from President Jonathan that presidential elections will be held throughout the entire country, including in the northeast. (The U.S. and UK know that if elections can be held in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can be held throughout northern Nigeria).
The Administration should call on both candidates to personally pledge that they (and their political parties) will engage in a non-violent process, that they will adhere to election guidelines and that any electoral disputes will be adjudicated in the courts and not on the streets. Recognizing the role that local political leaders play in the process, the Administration should send a strong and clear signal to State governors saying they have a responsibility to ensure the electoral process goes well in their respective states, and they need to cooperate with INEC to make that happen.
The Administration also needs to tell Abuja and the Nigerian people that the international community is watching the election process closely, that flawed and or violent elections will set back Nigeria’s economy and undermine its image. The Administration should also that Washington will condemn anyone seen to be undermining the electoral process, provoking violence or engaging in vote rigging.
Presidential phone calls to African leaders are not common place at the White House, but this is probably a time for Mr. Obama to reach out directly to President Jonathan and Mr. Buhari before any potential crisis occurs. Prime Minister Cameron and the President of the EU would be wise to do so as well.
The Nigerian elections are going to be close and potentially violent and destabilizing – much like the flawed Kenyan elections of December 2007. Working to ensure a good election before “Things Fall Apart” will be better for Nigeria, all its neighbors and its friends in the international community.
Once this election is over, the U.S. and Nigeria need to deal with the second order of business: how to develop a realistic and workable strategy to degrade the continuing onslaught of Boko Haram.
Ambassador Johnnie Carson is Senior Advisor, United States Institute of Peace & Senior Fellow, Jackson Institute, Yale University.