from Africa in Transition

Nigeria’s Elections in 2011 and 2015

January 21, 2015

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Nigerian anxiety is high about the approaching February 14 national elections. The country’s political class is fragmented, oil prices are falling, Nigeria’s currency has been devalued, and the Lagos stock exchange is in the doldrums. The insurgency called Boko Haram appears to be gaining strength.

Under these circumstances, some are expressing nostalgia for the 2011 elections, in which sitting president Goodluck Jonathan was elected, defeating Muhammadu Buhari. (Elected vice-president in 2007, Jonathan initially became president in 2010 upon the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua.) At the time, international observers proclaimed the elections as a dramatic improvement over those of 2007 (a low bar). Yet, in many ways, the 2011 elections set the stage for the current national crisis.

Nigerian governance under civilian rule has been characterized by power alternation between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. Though enshrined in the governing Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), power alternation was a matter of practice, not of law. In 2011, it was the north’s turn. Jonathan’s decision to run, and his subsequent victory, broke from the power sharing principle, contributing to the alienation of many in the north. As in 2015, the two presidential candidates in 2011 were the Christian Jonathan and the Muslim Buhari. The campaigns were disfigured by appeals to ethnic and religious identities. Buhari won all of the predominately Muslim states, Jonathan won the rest (with one exception). So, the election results seemingly bifurcated the country between a Muslim north and a Christian south.

Nigeria’s constitution requires a successful presidential candidate to win 50 percent plus one vote of the total cast. It also requires the successful candidate to win 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the states. Otherwise, there is a runoff between the top two candidates. Since the establishment of civilian rule, no presidential incumbent has been defeated, and there has never been a run-off.

Rigging has long been a characteristic of Nigerian elections. In 2011, it was less obvious. Polling was better than it had been with more polling stations open on time and supplied with ballots than ever before. However, ballot box stuffing remained. Nigerian civil organizations saw electoral fraud at the collating stations, where individual polling station results are collated. In 2011, the goal of the rigging appears to have been ensuring that Jonathan met the two constitutional requirements for electoral victory.

When Jonathan’s victory was announced in 2011, there was rioting in the north, accompanied by the greatest bloodshed since the 1967-70 civil war. The rioting initially appeared directed against those in the Islamic establishment who had supported the Jonathan candidacy, and later degenerated into ethnic and religious killings.

In 2015, once again the contest pits Jonathan against Buhari. This time, however, the political class is fractured, making election rigging more difficult as a practical matter. There is anecdotal evidence that, once again, there are appeals to ethnic and religious identities. Hence, the results of 2015 are not fore-ordained, as they have been in previous elections. In that sense, the 2015 elections are “real” in a way elections have not been in the past. Wild cards include how elections will occur in the three states under a state of emergency and how the estimated one million internally displaced persons can vote. And then there are the refugees in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the past, these populations would likely have supported Buhari, but if they are unable to vote, Jonathan may have an advantage. On the other hand, many observers are surprised by what seems to be widespread support for Buhari in areas outside the North.

No matter which candidate is declared the winner, there would seem to be plenty of grounds for the loser to reject the results. Hence, anxiety about the upcoming elections is not misplaced.