General Muhammadu Buhari, Presidential Candidate, All Progressives Congress, Nigeria Prospects for Democratic Consolidation in Africa: Nigeria's Transition, 26 February 2015

5 Keys To Decoding the Nigerian Elections

Africa’s largest democracy is poised to elect a new president. The final results are not in yet, and the world is watching the slow trickle of returns. If present trends in continue, General Muhammadu Buhari will defeat president Goodluck Jonathan to become the first candidate to beat an incumbent in the Nigerian presidential election. That’s a rarity in this region.  It’s a cliffhanger. A nailbiter. But what’s remarkable so far is the restraint shown on all sides in this tense atmosphere, as the nation awaits the results of this historic election, despite some concerns expressed by the US and the UK that irregularities were taking place in the vote counting.

UPDATE 1:15pm ET: Historic day in Nigeria. Goodluck Jonathan has conceded the election to Muhammadu Buhari, who wins the election with a more than 2 million vote margin. Full results and data are available here, and excellent analysis by James Schneider here

Given the size and import of Nigeria to Africa and the world, this election was always going to be a defining global event in 2015. Here are five keys to decode the Nigerian presidential elections:

Who is Muhammadu Buhari?

72 year old General Muhammadu Buhari is no stranger to the function of Nigerian head of state, having occupied the post from 1983 to 1985, after overthrowing President Shehu Shagari, elected in 1979. Buhari’s term as president ended when he was himself overthrown by a military coup. He has held various high profile posts, including Chairman of the Petroleum Fund, and has run – unsuccessfully –  in every presidential election since 2000. Goodluck Jonathan has failed to win the trust of Nigerians, and Buhari seems to promise a powerful, steady hand. Buhari, a Muslim who hails from northern Nigeria, is a figure of the Nigerian establishment, and a known quantity for voters.

Boko Haram

The growth of the radical Islamic movement in the northern part of the country has been an enormous challenge for Nigeria. As Boko Haram’s tactics became increasingly bold and widespread, the  government’s inability to effectively address the threat, over many years, has exposed some of the Nigerian military’s weaknesses. In February, the government decided to postpone the elections for six weeks due to concerns about Boko Haram disrupting the process. The conflict in northern Nigeria has displaced 1.5 million Nigerians and cost thousands of lives, and threatens the stability and sovereignty of Nigeria – the public’s discontent with Jonathan’s handling of the situation is reflected in the election results.

Lack of violence 

Despite the threat from Boko Haram, as well as from local groups, to destabilize the process, this presidential election has fortunately not been marred by the levels of violence reached in 2011, when 800 people were killed in violent flare-ups. Despite reports of localized violence, and technical glitches with some of the biometric equipment which extended the voting period by one day, the voting took place without major issues or intimidation – no small feat in a diverse, polarized country with nearly 57 million voters.

Turn out

The New African suggests that Jonathan’s potential loss is in large part due to a miscalculation – his campaign counted on the support from 2011 voters in Southern states (Jonathan is a Christian Southerner.) However, it looks as though participation and turn out plummeted in areas which turned out not to be strongholds. The development of technologies and innovations to encourage voters to register, to learn about the issues and guides on how to vote, have also helped boost meaningful participation in the process.

As one of the world’s leading oil producers, Nigeria’s economy has also been deeply affected by the recent drop in oil prices. The country’s continued dependence on oil and resulting vulnerability (in 2011, 70% of government revenues came from crude oil), and the chronic corruption issues in the sector, are key issues driving Nigerians to the polls.

Why it matters for Africa and the world 

Nigeria is not only Africa’s largest democracy and most populous nation, it is also its largest economy. So far, the consensus seems to be that the national election commission, INEC, has done a good job in ensuring a free and fair process, and overseeing Nigeria’s first ever democratic transition. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered his congratulations to Nigeria on the “largely peaceful and orderly conduct” of the elections The bar was very high, and despite unfortunate issues and glitches – which must be resolved and addressed before the next election – INEC’s process allows Nigeria to set the standard in the region. Governance issues in Africa, and in particular anti-democratic heads of state, have weakened Africa’s potential, and the trends have not been positive in recent years. These elections allow Nigeria to buttress and further legitimize its role as regional and global leader.


Want more? Here’s a 14 minute Global Dispatches Podcast episode about this very subject.