North-South rivalry has figured prominently in Nigeria’s presidential race, but another issue has also come to prominence: security. Critics of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, including former Northern military rulers, charge that he has responded ineffectively to bombings and other security incidents. Following another bombing on New Year’s Eve in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Jonathan has been working aggressively to enhance Nigeria’s security apparatuses and dispel concerns about his handling of security issues.
Security threats in Nigeria are occurring in multiple locations (the Niger Delta, Jos, Maiduguri, Abuja) at the hands of diverse groups (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, Boko Haram, and various local groups). Out of all the violence, the bombings have perhaps been politicized the most. The New Year’s Eve bombing was perpetrated by attackers whose identity remains unknown, though some authorities and observers hold the Islamic rebel group Boko Haram responsible.
Regardless of who plotted the bombing, it forms a sequel of sorts to a bombing in Abuja on Nigeria’s fiftieth Independence Day, October 1, 2010. Following that incident, Northern politicians issued harsh criticisms of Jonathan’s performance and called for his resignation. General Ibrahim Babangida, a former military ruler and potential presidential candidate, released a joint statement with the governor of Kwara State, Abubakar Bukola Saraki, in which they denounced Jonathan’s handling of the bombings and “accused him of failing to provide security around the country.”
Jonathan’s campaign quickly fired back at critics after Independence Day, but following the New Year’s Eve bombing the president called an emergency meeting on security issues and initiated high-profile policy changes. These include the appointment of a special terrorism adviser, the creation of new committees to monitor explosives and promote public awareness, the passage of an anti-terrorism law, and the introduction of CCTV in some public places. The government also announced it will tighten security at public events.
Jonathan’s response to the New Year’s Eve bombing says to me that he takes the security problem seriously both at a policy level and a political level. Where the policy calculations end and the political calculations begin I cannot say, but politically it is clear that he hopes to quash any possible perception that he is “soft on terror.” If such a feeling became widespread in Nigeria it would hand a rhetorical advantage to a military man like General Muhammadu Buhari, freshly nominated by the Congress for Progressive Change to run in the general election. Attention to security has featured in Buhari’s campaign so far. Jonathan’s rival for his own party’s nomination, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, has also made use of the security issue.
I do not think that debates over security will seriously damage Jonathan, but to the extent that security problems continue we will likely see terrorism remain a large issue in the campaign, and we may see further policy changes coming from the president.