In Brief

Nigeria’s Election: What to Know

The Giant of Africa’s next president will have to contend with daunting security and economic challenges.

Tens of millions of Nigerians will head to the polls on February 16 to elect the next president and legislature of Africa’s most populous country. After years of rigged elections, the “Giant of Africa,” as Nigerians call the country, finally landed on a democratic trajectory in 2015, when a credible general election was followed by a peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, to the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. The question now is whether Nigeria can sustain this progress, and hold a free and fair election in 2019, even as it struggles to reverse an economic tailspin and bring to an end disastrous conflicts affecting large swaths of the country.

The Candidates

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There are two principal candidates among the more than seventy vying for the presidency:

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Muhammadu Buhari. A former general who ran a military government in the 1980s, Buhari leads the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Plagued by health issues, he has spent much of his current term abroad for medical treatment. Buhari’s focus has been on defeating a resurgent Boko Haram, dealing with an economic downturn amid a slow recovery of global oil prices, and battling corruption, but he has had little success. He remains popular with the poor.

Atiku Abubakar. A former vice president, Abubakar is the candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). He advocates pro-growth fiscal policies and more foreign and domestic investment, though he has offered few specifics. He made a fortune in the oil services business, and he is widely viewed in the media and among civil society as being corrupt, which he denies. He has not faced legal charges.

Supporters sit on camels during a campaign rally for President Muhammadu Buhari in Kano.
Supporters sit on camels during a campaign rally for President Muhammadu Buhari in Kano. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

There is a longstanding norm that the Nigerian presidency alternates between representatives of the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south every eight years. It is still the north’s turn; both Buhari and Abubakar are Fulani Muslims from that region. Personality and elite bargaining over access to oil blocks, government contracts, and federal, state, and local offices have trumped specific policy issues.

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Judging from media reports and endorsements from various interested groups, the two candidates are neck and neck, though Abubakar appears to be gaining some momentum.

What’s at Stake

One out of every four sub-Saharan Africans is a Nigerian, and Nigeria’s economy is among the two largest on the continent. Given the country’s heft, credible elections in 2019 would be a boost for multiethnic democracy in Africa.

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Map of Nigeria

The winner will face several major problems:

Security. The Islamist insurgency Boko Haram in the northeast has resulted in some thirty thousand deaths and the internal displacement of up to two million Nigerians. Ongoing clashes between farmers and herders in the Middle Belt has at this point led to more deaths than those caused by Boko Haram. A low-level insurgency in the oil patch continues to threaten production. At the same time, there has been an upsurge of nonpolitical kidnapping across the country.

Economy. The country has not recovered from the 2008 global economic crisis, and it is still grappling with low oil prices. Poverty is growing across Nigeria, which has the largest number of people living on less than $1.90 per day—about ninety million—in the world. Drought, desertification, and flooding are increasing. Together with rapid population growth, they are fueling conflict in the Middle Belt, where farmers and herders are jockeying for dwindling arable land.

Corruption. Underlying all of this is a political system designed to enrich elites. Politics continues to be the means by which Nigerian elites access state oil wealth; the public good is secondary.

What to Expect

Presidential elections in Nigeria are complicated: the winner must win a majority of the nationwide vote, as well as at least 25 percent of votes in two-thirds of the country’s states. If no candidate achieves both of these, the top two will face off in a rerun. (This has never happened.)

The electoral commission will oversee more than 120,000 polling stations, an immense challenge in a huge country with poor infrastructure. Commission reforms in recent years have significantly reduced vote rigging. However, in 2018 gubernatorial elections, voter intimidation and outright vote-buying by security services and militias intensified. Because Buhari and Abubakar are of the same region, religion, and ethnic group, there is less potential for election rioting to morph into sectarian conflict than in the past. But if there is no clear winner, or if the declared loser does not concede, the chance of violence will increase.

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