By Chido Onumah*
2019 can rightly be described as Africa’s election year. More than ten countries, including two—Nigeria and South Africa—of the continent’s three power houses will conduct general or presidential elections between February and December. In the month of February alone, Nigeria will be joined by Senegal, where elections hold on February 24, to elect a new president or re-elect the incumbent. Interestingly, both incumbents, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Macky Sall of Senegal were opposition candidates four and seven years ago respectively.
While the outcome of the elections will be significant for the continent, all eyes will be on Nigeria where presidential election is slated for February 16. This year is also historic for the country as it marks twenty years of unbroken civilian rule in May.
While there are 91 officially registered political parties, 73 of those parties will be fielding presidential candidates, the highest in the history of the country. Essentially, the election remains a race between the incumbent, a retired general, Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and the candidate of the main opposition party, the People’s Democratic party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar.
Four years ago, riding on the tide of “change” inspired by what many described as the “weakness and cluelessness” of then incumbent, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, Muhammadu Buhari became the first opposition candidate to defeat an incumbent in Nigeria’s electoral history. Buhari and his party, the APC, promised to re-energise the economy by providing jobs for the teeming population of unemployed youth, tackle insecurity, and fight corruption.
A few days ago, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a story about Nigeria’s forthcoming election with the heading: “Nigeria’s Brutal Decision: Former Dictator or Alleged Kleptocrat.” The headline captures much of what the campaign—if one can call it that—has been all about. The ruling party has consistently accused the opposition and its candidate of condoning corruption while the opposition accuses the president and the ruling party of having little regard for the rule of law.
Only three weeks ago, the president suspended the country’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnoghen, over allegation of false declaration of assets, and appointed an acting Chief Justice, Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, to replace him. The president’s action didn’t have the input of the National Judicial Council (NJC), constitutionally mandated to undertake such task. The Nigerian constitution mandates all public officers to declare their assets with the Code of Conduct Bureau when they come into office and when they leave. Failure to declare or making false declaration can attract a punishment that includes a ban from holding public office for ten years. The case is currently being reviewed by NJC and legal experts say the president’s action could lead to a constitutional crisis if not handled carefully.
The other thing not captured in the Bloomberg headline is the question of the president’s health. The opposition point to a president who is “incapacitated” and unable to stand the rigours of running a country as diverse and problematic as Nigeria for another four years. President Buhari was in and out hospital in the UK, staying more than three months in a particular instance, for treatment for undisclosed illness, during his first term that comes to an end on May 29. Mr. Buhari hardly speaks and stands for more than ten minutes at each campaign stop and his gaffes—he once said he came to power in 2005 instead of 2015 and misstated when he was petroleum minister—have been interpreted as the result of a serious health challenge rather than mere slip-ups.
Much of Mr. Buhari’s campaign has been spearheaded by Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, who has assumed the role of national leader of the APC. It was Tinubu’s strength in the South-west after the merger of opposition parties in early 2013 to form the APC that saw Buhari win the presidency in 2015 after three failed attempts.
It is amid these brickbats that millions of Nigerians will be going to the polls. The campaigns have been lacklustre at best. Young Nigerians between 18-35 constitute 51.11 per cent of the 84 million voters. For many of them, the two leading candidates, Muhammadu Buhari, 76, and Atiku Abubakar, 72, do not represent the future they so desperately want.
Mr. Buhari has been in government since 1975 when he was appointed military administrator of former North-eastern state comprising today’s Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, Bauchi and Gombe States. He would become Nigeria’s federal commissioner (minister) of petroleum between 1976 and 1978, and head of state after he truncated the country’s Second Republic in a military coup on December 31, 1983. He was overthrown on August 27, 1985, after twenty months of brutal dictatorship which saw the public execution of three convicted drug offenders via a retroactive law and incarceration of journalists and politicians. He served as head of the Petroleum Trust Fund, a development-focused agency funded from money accruing from the increase in price of petroleum products, during the corrupt and tyrannical regime of General Sani Abacha (1993-1998). Buhari would go on to run for president on three occasions (2003, 2007, 2011) before his victory in 2015.
A successful businessman and politician, Mr. Abubakar on the other hand worked for many years with the Nigeria Customs Service before his foray into politics. A protégé of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a retired general who opposed Abacha’s dictatorship and would later die in prison, Atiku emerged as vice-president under retired general, Olusegun Obasanjo. He had a rocky relationship with his boss during their second term from 2003 to 2007 and failed in his bid to succeed him in 2007. He had run for president in 1992, and lost the primaries to Chief Moshood Abiola, during the political transition engineered by military dictator, Ibrahim Babangida, and would run again in 2011 and in 2015 against the eventual winner, Muhammadu Buhari in the APC primaries.
No matter who wins the February 16 presidential election, very little will change unless the country’s fundamental concerns are addressed. These concerns include diversifying the economy and making it less reliant on oil which has exacerbated prebendal politics in the country. There is also the need to address the problem of unity and national integration which seems to have taken serious knocks in the last four years. Without unity, and an end to sectarian and ethnic violence, the economy is unlikely to improve.
While the major election for president,109 senators and members of the Federal House of Representatives—among the highest paid legislators in the world—takes place on February 16, elections for the country’s 36 governors and state assembly members will take place two weeks later on March 2. Analysts say the state assembly election may be a game changer considering the passage of the age-reduction law, popularly known as “Not–too–young-to-run Act,” last year which reduced the age of Nigerians who want to run for elective offices.
More young people than before, mainly from outside the established political parties, are running for various offices across the 36 states of the country. Their successes could change the political landscape considering the kinds of radical legislations they may be pushing. But money and the issue of “godfatherism” remains a sore point in Nigeria’s electoral process. Apart from campaign spending, political parties have perfected the art of vote buying in a country where the minimum wage is 50USD per month and voters are easily swayed by as little as the equivalent of 10USD. It is left to be seen how many young aspirants will be able to navigate this financial labyrinth.
The election umpire, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has repeatedly assured political parties and the electorate that it is ready for the elections and that they will be free and fair even though the main opposition has occasionally questioned INEC’s independence. The international community—the US, UK and the EU—has called on INEC, the government and security agencies to ensure that the elections are credible, a call that has been interpreted in government circles as undue interference in the domestic affairs of the country.
Last week, Nasir el-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State, in Nigeria’s North-west, warned that, “Those that are calling for anyone to come and intervene in Nigeria, we are waiting for the person to come and intervene. They would go back in body bags because nobody would come to Nigeria and tell us how to run our country. We have got that independence. We are trying to run our country as decently as possible.” While the ruling APC expressed support for the governor, his speech was roundly condemned by the PDP, human rights groups as well as the EU election observers.
How important are the upcoming presidential elections for the future of Nigeria? Extremely important. Some observers have gone as far as saying that it is a referendum on the unity of the country. President Buhari has been accused of dividing the country with his pronouncements and appointments. The last two years have witnessed an upsurge in the activities of the deadly Boko Haram terrorist group while deadly violence unleashed by itinerant herdsmen on local farmers in the country’s North-central zone continues to simmer just as banditry and sectarian killings spread across the country. There is also the notion that what the outcome of the February 16 election will determine what happens in 2023 when power is expected to shift to the southern part of the country in line with the country’s unwritten code of power sharing between the north and south.
Both President Buhari and his main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, have received the support of various interest groups in the country. While the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) and the highest echelon of the country’s military elite—mostly ex-heads-of-state, including Olusegun Obasanjo, under whom Atiku served as VP between 1999-2007—are supporting Atiku, seventy-one retired army generals, admirals, marshals and former military governors/administrators recently came together to endorse President Buhari.
Whatever the outcome of the February 16 election, the existential crisis that looks set to rip Nigeria apart will persist. The clamour for restructuring the country and the campaign by separatist groups will move a notch higher. Atiku has hinged part of his campaign on the restructuring of the country. If he wins, he will be expected to follow through on the campaign promise. While this may be tough, there appears not to be any safe alternative to pull the country from the brink than to travel this rough road. The greatest challenge facing Nigeria today is how to build a united and equitable nation. There is an agreement that Nigeria is not working for most Nigerians. The country is deeply fractured and clearly there is a nexus between the country’s lack of unity and national integration and its underdevelopment.
For now, the solution would have to come from the two major parties. While the prospect of a “third force” looks appealing—Nobel Laurette, Wole Soyinka, recently endorsed Prof Kingsley Moghalu, political economist, lawyer, former United Nations official, ex-deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and the candidate of the Young Progressive Party—the emergent political parties have not been able to muster enough appeal across the country. 2023 looks like a possibility for any group that would want to upturn the more established parties. But that would depend on whether they go to sleep after February 16 or are willing to come together, roll up their sleeves and build a formidable nation-wide political movement.
One issue that has become topical as the presidential election draws near is whether the loser will concede, as President Jonathan did in 2015, and save the country the possibility of post-election violence. The candidates have signed a peace accord to eschew hate-speech, uphold issue-based campaigns at national, state and local government levels, support INEC and security agencies, forcefully and publicly speak out against provocative utterances and oppose all acts of electoral violence, whether perpetrated by supporters and/or opponents.
It is left to be seen how far they will go in upholding the tenets of the peace accord. Either way, the outcome of the election will reverberate across the sub-region and beyond in the months, and perhaps, years ahead.
*Chido Onumah, Nigerian journalist and rights activist, is Coordinator of the African Centre for Media & Information. His most recent book is We Are All Biafrans: A Participant-Observer’s Interventions in a Country Sleepwalking to Disaster.