International election observers have been enthusiastic about Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections, seeing them as a dramatic improvement over those of 2007, admittedly a low bar. Electorally, the country split in two, with the North, predominately Muslim, voting for Muhammadu Buhari and the South for the winner, incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan. (In addition, there were numerous other candidates who altogether won only a small percentage of the vote). Buhari and other Northern spokesmen have denounced the elections as having been rigged and have called for them to be annulled. Meanwhile, murderous rioting has broken out across the northern part of the country, a sign of the major breakdown in civic order. What happened?
There appears to have been substantial election rigging, not so much at the polling stations where international observers were often present but at the collation centers where monitors were usually absent. A distinguished Nigerian civil organization, The Civil Society Election Situation Room, notes that in twelve states – one third of the total – ostensible voter turnout was suspiciously high. The national voter turnout average was 53 percent. In the twelve identified states, the turnout ranged from 62 percent to 84 percent. The Situation Room cites allegations that the figures were “doctored” and declares that the collation process constituted “the weakest link in the election management process." Project Swift Count, another civil organization involved with election oversight, did station observers at some collation sites, but apparently a number of its personnel were arrested or otherwise intimidated. The Situation Room faults the Electoral Commission for having been “ineffective in its oversight function as far as monitoring and controlling the collation process was concerned.”
In Nigeria, governors often play a prominent role in election rigging. Of the twelve states with dubious turnout figures cited by the Election Situation Room, eleven had governors from the ruling party who supported Jonathan; none had governors from the opposition who supported Buhari. Of the twelve states that Buhari won, all in the North, Jonathan accumulated more than twenty-five percent of the vote in eight of them. Of those eight, all are represented by governors of the ruling party, the PDP.
Most of the rigging appears to have benefited Jonathan, and the Electoral Commission has certified that he won twice as many votes as Buhari and easily a majority of the ballots cast. Why rig in states that Jonathan was almost certain to win anyway? The Nigerian constitution requires a successful presidential candidate to win an absolute majority of the votes cast and at least 25 percent of the vote in two thirds of the states. Otherwise, there is a runoff between the two candidates who had the most votes. So, Jonathan needed overwhelming majorities in his base states to ensure that he won an absolute majority of the ballots cast nationwide. And, to avoid a runoff, he also needed sufficient support in the North to meet the vote distribution requirement.
So, even if the polling was credible, the ballot counting was not. With the country split in half on regional and religious lines, and with many of the losers convinced the elections were stolen, the result has enraged the North against the ruling party, (including northern elites who are associated with the ruling party such as the Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Kano) and also against Christians in many places. The issue is not whether Jonathan would have won the elections “anyway,” it is rather the sentiment among Northerners that the PDP yet again stole the elections. The immediate concern is that Northern violence against the ruling party and its perceived Christian supporters will result in an anti-Muslim backlash in the states that supported Jonathan. The longer term concern is the alienation of the North from the Federal Republic, a process already underway.