Nigeria’s State Elections Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Nigeria will hold state elections. Although the victory of Muhammadu Buhari in the presidential vote of March 28-29 has rightly attracted major attention, it is important not to forget about the state contests, which will have a significant impact on the lives of Nigerian citizens – recall that the populations of some Nigerian states (Lagos, Kano) exceed the populations of many entire African countries.

I’ll mention two pieces I’ve written that hopefully shed some light on state-level dynamics. My backgrounder (.pdf) on the elections, written for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, discusses Lagos, Kano, Plateau, and Rivers (pp. 12-15). A follow-up post for the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog discusses Lagos, Kano, and Rivers. Both pieces were written before the six-week electoral delay announced in February, but I think much of the analysis still applies. At a basic level, the most important thing to highlight is that many of Nigeria’s governors are term-limited, so the races in many states are open and will produce new officeholders.

To narrow down my list of key states even further, I will be watching Lagos and Rivers the most carefully. Lagos is a stronghold of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Buhari’s party, and both the outgoing governor and his predecessor are major APC figures. I would be surprised if the APC, in the person of its nominee Akinwunmi Ambode, does not hold the state. Yet the race in Lagos recently had a moment of tension when the Oba of Lagos, a ceremonial hereditary ruler, reportedly made threatening comments regarding any Igbos who might not vote for the APC candidate (the Oba later denied the threat). Lagos is a historically Yoruba area, and Ambode (as well as many other APC leaders in southwestern Nigeria, and the Oba too for that matter) are Yoruba. Ambode distanced himself from the Oba’s comments. The Yoruba and the Igbo are, respectively, the second and third largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. The point is this: just as Buhari is now expected to negotiate a politics of inclusivity as Nigeria’s incoming president, the victor in Lagos will face pressure to show inclusivity in a mega-city populated heavily by immigrants.

Rivers currently has an APC governor, Rotimi Amaechi, who defected from the People’s Democratic Party or PDP, the party of outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, in 2013. Amaechi is term-limited, and the gubernatorial election will in some sense represent a contest of wills and resources between Amaechi and Jonathan’s wife Patience, who is also from Rivers. There is significant potential for violence in Rivers. During the presidential vote, Rivers was the site of protests by the APC, which alleged that the PDP had committed massive fraud. Electoral authorities, however, accepted the result from Rivers, which like the rest of the South South and South East zones voted overwhelmingly for Jonathan according to official results. The APC has asked for the removal of the Resident Electoral Commissioner in Rivers, charging that she will not administer the gubernatorial election there fairly. Rivers heads into the weekend, in other words, facing considerable tension.

Which states are you watching?

Ten Thoughts on Nigerian President-Elect Buhari’s Victory

Nigeria held national elections over the weekend. As results came through over the past few days, it became clear that General Muhammadu Buhari had defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. The incumbent formally conceded yesterday. I have a few thoughts:

  1. This is a good outcome. It marks the first transfer of power from one civilian party to another at the national level in Nigeria. It strengthens the reputation and credibility of national institutions, particularly the Independent National Electoral Commission, at a time when many Nigerians and international audiences were nervous about the possibility of manipulation, fraud, and violence. I will also say forthrightly that I think Buhari and his team will do a better job than Jonathan and his circle. Nigeria’s problems are not all Jonathan’s fault, but for most of his time in office the key problems (Boko Haram, corruption, inequality) worsened. Buhari is not perfect, but I think the sophistication his team showed on the campaign trail suggests a higher level of competence than was seen under Jonathan.
  2. This outcome surprised me. For over a year, I’ve been telling people in private that I thought the power of incumbency would allow Jonathan’s circle to ensure that they won, including through manipulation. I also thought that Buhari’s reputation as an anti-corruption fighter would make Nigerian elites broadly nervous about the idea of him coming to power, and that enough of them would cling to Jonathan that it would prevent a Buhari victory. About a month ago my tune changed to uncertainty about what would happen, but I certainly did not foresee a clear and mostly peaceful victory for Buhari. I underestimated the strength of Nigeria’s institutions and the determination of the country’s voters. Also, credit where credit is due: various voices predicted a Buhari win, with varying degrees of accuracy in terms of state-by-state forecasts – see New Africa MagazineEurasia Group, and Damina Advisors.
  3. For Buhari, the map and the strategy changed from 2011 to 2015 – it’s not just “north versus south.” Compare the maps from 2011 (when Jonathan also faced Buhari) and 2015. It’s clear that this time Buhari put together a mostly national coalition, or perhaps became the face of a coalition that harnessed his personal popularity, or perhaps both. In any case, what put Buhari in contention was the support he had from influential politicians in the southwest, symbolized by his running mate Yemi Osinbajo and personified by his party’s informal leader, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu. Southwestern politicians provided not just the votes, but also much of the new strategic thinking that helped Buhari appear to the nation and the world as a candidate ready for prime-time and the big chair (one example of a strategic decision was when his party, the All Progressives Congress or APC, declined to violently protest the six-week postponement of the elections). For his part, Jonathan was unsuccessful in making backroom deals that would restore the southwest to his column. And if the southwest put Buhari in contention, it was the “Middle Belt” or North Central zone that helped put him over the top – winning places like Kwara, Kogi, and Benue testifies both to Jonathan’s unpopularity and to the APC’s success in uniting the opposition and extending its reach into new areas of the country.
  4. Boko Haram was one issue in the election, but not the only issue. Most important, in addition to the opposition’s coalition-building, was Buhari’s image as an anti-corruption reformer. Many Nigerians say that corruption is the core problem in their country, underlying all others – even the problem of Boko Haram, insofar as corruption hamstrings the armed forces and helps provide Boko Haram with talking points. One test for Buhari will be whether he lives up to that image. He will have to strike a delicate balance between showing progress and not alienating necessary allies – so many people have a vested interest in the current system of corruption that it will take creativity and courage to chart a viable path forward on this issue.
  5. Boko Haram’s violence is not as closely calibrated to the political calendar as many people think, nor does the group show evidence of being able to think and plan at a national level. There were some attacks during the voting this year, notably in Bauchi, but they did not severely disrupt the elections. If I were Abubakar Shekau, I would have organized coordinated bombings in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Jos, and Maiduguri on election day – a move that I think would have dominated headlines and thrown many voters into a panic. Perhaps Shekau was capable of doing something like that but chose not to, opting to save resources for a later time or to avoid the unpredictable consequences that such attacks could have had for the elections. But to me the lack of well-coordinated and far-reaching attacks on election day suggests that (a) Boko Haram is neither as strong nor as sophisticated as many people think; (b) Boko Haram is and has long been an essentially northeastern group with a limited ability to strike outside that zone; and (c) Boko Haram is under severe pressure from Chadian, Nigerien, and Nigerian forces. It’s also worth recalling that despite all Boko Haram’s talk about hating democracy, the group has never tightly linked its actions to the political calendar. In 2011, for example, it concentrated on assassinating northeastern politicians associated with a former political ally. In general, Boko Haram’s attacks follow a particular logic – one driven by the group’s need to survive and its ambitions to rule the northeast. On the other hand, Boko Haram’s attacks became much more dramatic after the 2011 elections. What they will do now remains to be seen.
  6. One major question will be to what extent Buhari’s party, the APC, can bring a coherent economic vision to federal policymaking, particularly in a period of low oil prices. Two sub-questions are: (a) to what extent will southwestern APC politicians seek to replicate the model they have built in Lagos, where they have emphasized tax collection and service delivery over reliance on oil rents? and (b) to what extent will Buhari seek to implement the policies outlined by Tinubu here, where he talked about running deficits to finance job-creating infrastructure projects? In my view, both moves would be good. If the APC doesn’t create jobs, it will be in big trouble politically.
  7. Buhari’s win testifies to the importance of patience for African opposition candidates. Buhari’s victory reminds many observers of Abdoulaye Wade’s victory over Abdou Diouf in the Senegalese alternance of 2000. Wade ran unsuccessfully against Diouf (and his predecessor Leopold Senghor) four times before he won on the fifth attempt, just as Buhari unsuccessfully ran three times against the People’s Democratic Party (Jonathan’s party, which has ruled Nigeria since the civilian transition of 1999) before winning on his fourth attempt. The message to other African opposition leaders seems clear: you have to build support over multiple elections and outlast the ruling party until popular discontent leaves the incumbents no choice but to bow to the will of the voters.
  8. More mathematically-inclined minds than my own will be poring over the numbers and will have more sophisticated comments to make, but already there has been some speculation about whether the 2015 results call into question any of the 2011 results. 2011 was hailed as one of the best elections Nigeria ever had, but there are questions about the integrity of the numbers, especially high turnout and high Jonathan margins in the South East and the South South (Jonathan is from the latter zone). In any case it seems 2015 was an improvement over 2011 in terms of transparency and integrity.
  9. There is a generation of Nigerian men, born in the 1930s and 1940s, who have decisively shaped Nigeria’s postcolonial trajectory. They include Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida, T.Y. Danjuma, and Buhari. Buhari’s win reflects the continued influence of that generation, but this decade may be the last where they are still so prominent. The 2020s will likely see the torch decisively passed to a new generation of politicians who did not serve in the military and were born after, or just shortly before, independence.
  10. Don’t forget that state elections are coming up on April 11. The outcomes of those elections will matter tremendously for Nigeria, and will shape the political futures of major states (Lagos, Kano, Rivers, etc.) whose populations sometimes exceed those of many entire African countries.

What do you think of the elections?

Five Recommendations to the USG on Engaging the Buhari Administration

Yesterday, after a hard-fought election, Nigerian President Gooduck Jonathan conceded to General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military and four-time presidential candidate. Buhari will take office May 29. His party is the All Progressives Congress or APC.

Nigeria is by many measures (population, economy, cultural production, etc.) the most important country in Africa, and it is a key partner for the United States. Under Jonathan, the U.S.-Nigeria relationship has been strained at times. Buhari’s presidency will offer an opportunity for a fresh start.

The issues the two countries can work on together are obvious – countering Boko Haram, strengthening democratic institutions and economic development, etc. But just as important as the substance of the partnership will be its form. Jonathan often seemed isolated behind a wall of sycophants, which made him difficult to reach – not that the U.S. has major leverage over Nigeria in any event, but it’s even harder to have influence when you don’t have a strong relationship. Here are a few basic suggestions about how to get off on the right foot with Buhari and his administration:

  1. Treat Buhari as an equal. Don’t start the conversation with a list of “asks” or “advice” that are in reality just demands. Talk to Buhari the way you would expect a foreign leader to talk to the United States. Send someone very senior (cabinet rank at least) to his inauguration. And President Obama should visit Nigeria at some point in 2015 or 2016. In light of this election and this historic transition, the old justifications for not visiting (worries about seeming to endorse the incumbent, tolerate corruption, etc.) no longer seem strong enough to warrant ignoring Nigeria.
  2. Engage Vice President-elect Yemi Osinbajo early and often. Buhari’s allies in the South West played a major role in his election – perhaps even making the difference between 2011 and 2015. Osinbajo will be that southwestern cohort’s most senior formal representative in Buhari’s government. As an accomplished politician in his own right (he was Lagos Attorney General from 1999-2007) and an influential Christian leader, he will likely play a stronger role in Buhari’s government than outgoing Vice President Namadi Sambo played in Jonathan’s. If I were a US policymaker, I would figure out what issues Osinbajo cares about and stay in touch with him about them. In other words, don’t just call him when you have an ask – cultivate a real relationship, and not just an ad hoc one managed by the Embassy in Abuja. A congratulatory phone call from Vice President Biden would be a good way to start.
  3. Keep in close touch with Bola Tinubu. If Osinbajo is the southwest’s formal representative in the next government, former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu was the campaign’s mastermind and will likely remain the APC’s informal leader. As such, he will likely have an influential voice in shaping the government’s decisions, especially with an eye to politics and 2019. This relationship, too, is worth cultivating and maintaining. A quarterly call from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Tinubu would give Washington a strong line to the new administration’s political nerve center.
  4. Bring all the governors to Washington. It’s not just about engaging the federal government – sub-national actors, especially state governors, are hugely influential in Nigeria, including on security and development issues. In March 2014, the U.S. Institute of Peace brought most of the northern Nigerian state governors to Washington for a symposium and for meetings around town, including with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Given that many of the governors elected on April 11 will be new faces (due to term limits), it would be wise to repeat the endeavor, and this time by inviting all thirty-six governors.
  5. Continue to think long-term about Boko Haram. The final weeks of the presidential campaign saw some military progress against Boko Haram, although the effort was marred by the murky quality of some information (making it unclear whether some towns had really been recaptured or not) and by the complaints of Nigeria’s neighbors that Nigerian forces were not coordinating with them effectively. Hopefully Jonathan will sustain the gains and improve the regional coordination in his final weeks in office, and then Buhari will consolidate the progress and address any remaining problems of coordination after he is inaugurated. Even in this best case scenario, however, long-term challenges will remain: preventing Boko Haram from regrouping, prosecuting and/or reintegrating its fighters, holding security forces accountable for abuses, addressing joblessness and underdevelopment in the northeast, etc. There is even a danger that a moment of euphoria over recapturing territory could divert attention away from these long-term issues and encourage a premature declaration of victory. Washington should give the new administration time to breathe, but should from time to time respectfully remind them that the goal is not just to defeat Boko Haram, but also to prevent it – or anything like it – from re-emerging in the years to come. As I said above, though, a conversation like that can only happen if deep relationships are cultivated from the start.

Roundup of Recent Writing on the Humanitarian Fallout from Boko Haram

The violence by and against Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect has had a tremendous impact on non-combatants. Northeastern Nigeria and surrounding countries (Niger, Cameroon, and Chad) have experienced waves of displaced persons. Here is some recent writing on the humanitarian aspect of the conflict:

Accounts about surrounding countries:

  • World Food Program: “WFP Resumes Food Distributions in Diffa, Niger”
  • AFP: “Refugees in Niger Live Under Shadow of Boko Haram”
  • VOA: “Humanitarian Crisis Looms at Cameroon Refugee Camp”
  • ICRC: “Chad: Fallout from Escalating Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria”
  • UNHCR: “As Violence Spills Over to Countries Neighbouring Nigeria, UNHCR Calls for Urgent Humanitarian Access to the Displaced”

Accounts about Nigeria:

  • NEMA: “There Are 981,416 IDPs in Nigeria”
  • BBC: “Doctor on the Frontline”
  • IRIN: “For Boko Haram Victims, Charity Begins at Home”
  • IRIN: “Tackling the Trauma of Boko Haram”
  • Doctors Without Borders: “The Fighting Gets Closer and Closer”
  • ICRC: “Nigeria: ICRC Steps Up Aid as Situation Worsens in North-East”
  • NEMA: “Baga Relief Intervention”
  • Joshua Meservey: “Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Boko Haram are a Crisis in the Making”

Nigerian Elections: Goodluck Jonathan and the Southwest

While many eyes are fixed on the violence in Nigeria’s northeast, the country’s approaching presidential election (March 28) will hinge on what happens elsewhere. One critical zone is the South West, a base of strength for the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC). The South West is majority-Yoruba, and its most populous city (which is also Africa’s most populous) is Lagos, which has been governed by opposition parties since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The South West voted for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in each of the last four presidential elections. Indeed, the 2011 elections featured a fairly straightforward electoral map. Of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones, President Goodluck Jonathan won four of them – the North Central, the South West, the South East, and the South South. His challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, won the North West and the North East. In 2015, the same two men are competing again, but the map could look quite different. Few doubt that Jonathan can hold most or all of the South East and the South South. But Buhari is more competitive in the North Central and the Southwest than he was four years ago. In 2011, the rumor goes, APC leader and former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu (then of the ACN, one of the APC’s constituent parties) made a deal with Jonathan to support his presidential bid if Jonathan’s PDP left several South West governorships to the ACN. Whatever the truth of that allegation, this time could be different. Tinubu backs Buhari (unless something changes!), and other South West leaders seem fed up with Jonathan – hence former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent endorsement of Buhari.

This dynamic helps explain why Jonathan recently undertook a high-profile, four-day sweep through the South West. His campaign was especially eager to highlight his meetings with traditional rulers, such as the Alaafin of Oyo, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and the Alara of Ilara Epe. Jonathan also met Muslim leaders in the South West. (Although the international media is quick to talk of Nigeria’s “Muslim North” and its “Christian South,” there are many Muslims in the South West, and a sizeable Christian minority in much of the North.) The Punch quotes one purported insider account of behind-the-scenes deal-making:

A former Minister of Works, Chief Adeseye Ogunlewe, told one of our correspondents on the telephone on Saturday that the Yoruba elders lamented that the people of the South-West had been marginalised in the Jonathan administration.

He said the Yoruba leaders asked Jonathan to put into writing that if he wins the March 28 elections, Yorubas would be given key positions in his government.

The Punch goes on to report that the APC has mounted a political counter-offensive.

Which way will the South West go? I would be foolish to offer a prediction. On the one hand you have the power and charisma of the presidency and the PDP, and on the other you have the APC’s impressive coalition and its fierce criticisms of the President’s performance. And one should not minimize the agency of the voters, whose behavior may defy the will of political giants (from either party). In any case, the South West is a zone to watch.

On the Bombardment of Abadam, Niger

On February 17, an airstrike killed an estimated thirty-six people in the village of Abadam, Niger (map showing the closest nearby town, Bosso). Although the author of the airstrike remains unconfirmed, most coverage has pointed to Nigeria as the likely candidate.

The strike on Abadam comes amid three interrelated trends: (1) violence by Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect is increasingly spilling over into Nigeria’s neighbors as they move to fight the sect within their territory and even within Nigeria; (2) the Nigerian military is facing international and domestic pressure to demonstrate rapid progress against Boko Haram; (3) Nigeria’s neighbors seem frustrated with Nigeria’s performance against the sect. Although it was an accident, the strike shows how these different trends exist in tension with one another. Put differently, it shows how Nigeria’s aims, incentives, and actions may conflict with those of its neighbors.

Back to the incident itself:

At least 36 civilians were killed when a military plane bombed a funeral party in a Niger border village, the government said, in an incident its deputy mayor blamed on the Nigerian air force.

The air crew was likely to have mistaken the villagers, who had gathered near a mosque, for Boko Haram militants, Niger military sources in the nearby town of Bosso said.

[…]

Abadam lies on the border with Nigeria around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of Bosso, where thousands of soldiers from Chad and Niger are massed in preparation for operations against Boko Haram.

The best commentary I’ve seen on the strike has come from RFI (French). RFI focuses on the operational, rather than the political, difficulties with such strikes:

The bombardment of Abadam brings to light the limits of resorting to airstrikes against Boko Haram. The Cameroonians have only used their Alpha Jet with caution. They have only done so one time, to liberate one of their bases briefly occupied by Boko Haram at the end of December. [RFI is referring to this incident – Alex.] As for the Chadians, they strike military targets with their Sukhoï in support of or in preparation for an operation on the ground. African military personnel generally agree in thinking that their fighter planes are too imprecise and thus too dangerous in the zones where members of Boko Haram are mixed into the civilian population.

These points take on added importance as Nigeria turns to airstrikes within its own territory. Just yesterday, the Nigerian military bombed suspected Boko Haram positions in the Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria.

The operational dangers feed into the potential for political problems, both within Nigeria and with its neighbors. Authorities in Niger have reacted calmly in public to the strike on Abadam (see the government’s statement in French here), declaring three days of national mourning and promising an investigation into the identity of the aircraft. Nevertheless, if it does turn out that Nigeria was responsible, this episode may foreshadow how a search for quick fixes as the clock ticks down to March 28 (the date of Nigeria’s once-delayed presidential elections) could put Nigeria at odds with the surrounding countries.

Mapping Boko Haram’s Attacks

Ryan Cummings recently wrote about several myths surrounding Nigeria’s Boko Haram sect. To his list one could add others, including the claim that the geographical range of Boko Haram’s attacks is always expanding. Of course, it is self-evidently true that if one looks at the group’s entire career, their range does indeed expand every time they strike a new location. But the idea that the trend is always toward expansion is not necessarily true.

In the current environment, with Nigeria’s neighbors fighting Boko Haram, there is a trend toward Boko Haram strikes in their territory – as demonstrated by recent incidents in Diffa, Niger; Waza, Cameroon; and Ngouboua, Chad.

Yet within Nigeria, the overall trend may be towards contraction of the group’s attacks. Davin O’Regan has published a rich and interesting set of maps, together with analysis, that show a more concentrated, higher intensity battle zone in 2013-2014 versus 2012. O’Regan writes,

Boko Haram’s brutal wave of attacks seemed unstoppable in 2014. Deaths from the Islamic extremist group’s campaign of violence in Nigeria more than doubled 2013’s toll, surpassing rates seen during the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.surpassing levels of violence seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The group overran military bases and circulated footage of a Nigerian Air Force jet it claimed to have shot down. By August, Boko Haram announced an “Islamic State” in northern Nigeria, eliciting comparisons to ISIS’s sweeping seizure of vast territory in Iraq and Syria. Some reports have claimed that Boko Haram controls up to 20 percent of Nigerian territory.

An analysis of the geographic distribution of the group’s attacks and movement in recent years suggests more limited and shifting territorial ambitions, however. Despite Boko Haram’s growing lethality and tactical sophistication, the group appears to be concentrating larger proportions of its resources in Nigeria’s more remote border areas.

This analysis suggests that rather than representing “new fronts,” Boko Haram’s attack in Lagos last year was an aberration.

Are O’Regan’s data reliable? That depends on the quality of the primary source data. But the real point is the trend. I have heard former Ambassador John Campbell say of his Nigeria Security Tracker that its individual casualty counts (drawn from press reports) are hard to verify, but that the trends in these counts likely give us an accurate picture of whether violence is rising or falling. The same may well hold true for geographic trends.

The implication of O’Regan’s data is that Boko Haram is a northeastern Nigerian group with a limited but real capacity to project violence into other areas – other northern cities (including Abuja), border areas of nearby countries and, rarely, southern Nigeria.

O’Regan’s whole post is worth reading. He gives possible explanations for the contraction (and you can find others here, particularly the idea that by pushing Boko Haram out of Maiduguri, the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force inadvertently contributed to a wave of extreme rural violence). O’Regan also offers thoughtful policy recommendations, namely a suggestion to contain Boko Haram in the northeast.

Of course, one further lesson from his maps is Boko Haram’s adaptability. Efforts by Nigeria’s neighbors to destroy Boko Haram are already starting to change its range and targets. The map for 2015 may well end up looking different than either the 2012 map or the 2013-2014 map.