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.

Three Perspectives on Nigeria’s Presidential Elections

Nigeria will hold presidential elections on Saturday, pitting incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) against former military ruler and four-time opposition candidate General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Here are three perspectives on the election – one from a Nigerian analyst, one from the Jonathan campaign, and one from APC.

  • Zainab Usman: “A changing demographic – 70% of the over 170 million Nigerians are under the age of 30 – has laid bare the ruling party’s dismal record in economic and human development. After more than a decade of sustained economic growth, the number of people living under $1.25 a day poverty line according to World Bank figures, hardly budged from 61.8% in 2004 to 62% in 2010. The PDP’s intimidation of party members, elections manipulation and militaristic political culture are also becoming obsolete…It is within this context that the APC emerged as an alternative platform for reconciling competing elite interests, and whose victory would herald the most unprecedented generational power shift in Nigeria since the civil war in the 1960s. Paradoxically the very forces that give the APC its best shot of unseating the PDP undermine its populist-progressive credentials. Key members including former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar and the defacto leader of South-West politics Bola Tinubu are beneficiaries of the current system. To cap it all, the APC’s presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari was a military ruler in the 1980s.”
  • Former Governor Peter Obi, currently Deputy Director-General of Jonathan’s campaign: “Clearly, President Jonathan has achieved more in economic develop­ment than any of his predecessors. All sectors have been positively affected since 2011, when he came into of­fice. The rebasing of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product ranked the nation’s economy 1st in Africa and 26th glob­ally; from third and 46th respectively. It also showed that the economy has been more widely diversified than before. It will bear repetition to be reminded that Nigeria successfully hosted a World Economic Forum in 2014, Foreign Di­rect Investments were boosted from US$24.9 million as at 2007 to over US$35 billion by 2014; and virtually all quoted companies doubled in size, assets and profit. The marvels in the road sector show that the Jonathan ad­ministration has rendered over 25,000 kilometres of federal road motorable, from barely 5,000 kilometres as at 2011; work is on-going for a second bridge over the River Niger and on the Loko-Oweto Bridge over River Benue; Onitsha now has a port and the dredg­ing of the River Niger is opening up our inland waterways; Nigerian Railways has been resuscitated from a 30-year-old coma, with over 3,500 kilometres of lines now operational. In the meantime, 22 airports have been remodelled to meet international standards. He is si­multaneously constructing five interna­tional terminals, as has never witnessed anywhere in the world, in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Kano and Enugu.”
  • Outgoing Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola (APC): “As far as roads are concerned, and they are critical to the economic development and prosperity of our people for the movement of people, goods and services, the record of performance offered by the Federal Government is that they have constructed 25,000 kilometers of road. How true that is, is to be measured by the complaints of PDP Governors themselves, who say Federal roads in their States have been neglected. How bogus this is, is the realization that the distance between Lagos and London is approximately 5,025 kilometers. Has the PDP Federal Government constructed roads that go the distance of Lagos to London five times? Is it possible to do this by a Government that has never had a capital budget of up to 40% in 6 six years?”

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.

Nigeria’s Elections: Beyond “The Bumbler vs. the Thug”

Since the two major parties nominated their presidential candidates, Nigeria’s presidential election (now scheduled for March 28, following a six-week delay announced earlier this month) has been, effectively, a two-man race. These two men are incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan represents the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a coalition of opposition parties.

In much international coverage of the race, whether by non-Nigerian journalists or Nigerians speaking to international audiences, the two candidates have been presented in crude and one-dimensional ways. The narrative at work in such commentaries says that Jonathan is a bumbler – a nice guy perhaps, but ultimately an “accidental president” who is in over his head, too incompetent to deal with problems like corruption or the violence caused by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the same narrative tells us that Buhari is a thug – an essentially military man whose record is fatally tarnished by his regime’s actions in the 1980s, and whose prospects for winning the presidency have grown only because of Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative goes on to say that Nigerians face two very bad choices for president – perhaps implying that “the devil they know” is the better choice.

Some critical omissions have led to this distorted narrative of “the bumbler vs. the thug.” Not only does the narrative misrepresent both men, it obscures shifts at work in Nigerian politics. It may be a two-man race, but there is a larger cast of characters involved in deciding who will be Nigeria’s next president.

Jonathan as a Deliberate Choice and a Deliberate Policymaker

Nearly every profile one reads of Jonathan in the international media calls him the “accidental president.” The idea of Jonathan’s accidental rise fits neatly with the idea of him as an incompetent bumbler. He just kind of ended up in his position, we hear, so it’s no surprise that he has trouble dealing with the country’s major problems.

And indeed, Jonathan was twice elevated to higher office by accident – first from Deputy Governor to Governor of Bayelsa State in 2005, when his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges; and second from Vice President to Acting President and then President in 2010, when his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua fell ill and then passed away.

Jonathan was not, however, an accidental vice president, and that fact is often forgotten. After President Olusegun Obasanjo (served 1999-2007) lost his bid to engineer constitutional changes that would have permitted him a third term, he handpicked a ticket he believed would be politically effective and biddable. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s deceased former second-in-command from Obasanjo’s time as a military ruler (more on this below). Yar’Adua hailed from the north, thus fulfilling a PDP internal agreement to rotate the presidency back to that region. Jonathan was (and is) an Ijaw from the Niger Delta, an oil-producing region where militants, many of them Ijaw, had recently begun a wave of attacks on government and oil industry targets. There was nothing accidental about Jonathan’s selection.

The other problem with the “bumbler” narrative about Jonathan is that it overlooks the sophistication of his team. Jonathan’s Finance Minister is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank (and also Finance Minister under Obasanjo). Jonathan’s Central Bank Governor (until they fell out in 2013-2014) was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a Northern aristocrat and banker who won international acclaim for his response to the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Jonathan’s National Security Advisor is Colonel Sambo Dasuki, the son of a former Sultan of Sokoto (the pre-eminent hereditary Muslim ruler in the North) and a professional military man. One could point to current and former members of the team with less stellar reputations – but the point is that the president or his handlers have deliberately chosen a number of figures who are both (a) recognized experts in their fields and (b) exciting and credible to international observers. Ultimately, I think it’s immaterial whether Jonathan himself is a highly capable individual or not; what matters is the administration as a whole.

I see two views one could hold about this team. The charitable view would credit them with rapid economic growth and offer a list of their accomplishments in infrastructure development and other fields. The charitable view would say that the team is doing the best it can in difficult economic and security circumstances. In contrast, the uncharitable view would argue that the administration has deliberately ignored key problems in its approach to Boko Haram (problems such as corruption and systemic human rights abuses by security forces) and has deliberately chosen economic policies that leave poverty and inequality untouched. Whether one is charitable or uncharitable, it is hard to say that the president is a bumbler – either he and his all-stars are doing the best they can in trying times, or he and his all-stars are making choices that privilege certain regions and social groups over others.

Buhari as a Seasoned Politician Assembling a New, Geographically Diverse Coalition

Many profiles from the 2014-2015 campaign discuss Buhari as though he has never run for president before – as though he is a former military ruler who exploded back onto the political scene in response to Nigerians’ anxieties about Boko Haram. The narrative of “Buhari as thug” is perpetuated by thinning his resume, decontextualizing former military rulers’ continued role in Nigerian politics, and misreading the Nigerian political map of 2015.

On the topic of Buhari’s resume, the first thing to note is that he was the runner-up in the past three elections – to Obasanjo in 2003, to Yar’Adua in 2007, and to Jonathan in 2011. So he has been running seriously for president as a civilian for over six times as long as he ruled the country as a military dictator (1983-1985). The other thing to note about Buhari’s resume is his long experience in the petroleum sector, both in the 1970s and the 1990s. This experience should not be invoked to minimize the serious allegations of human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties stemming from his time as military ruler, but the experience does round out the portrait of Buhari as a multi-faceted candidate.

On the subject of Buhari’s military past, the implication that he is an anomaly among current Nigerian politicians – or that his candidacy’s strength is primarily a result of current insecurity – is ludicrous. Since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, many leading politicians have either been former military rulers or figures closely connected to them. Obasanjo was military ruler from 1976-1979. Yar’Adua was the brother of Obasanjo’s second-in-command. Former military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida has sought the presidency. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (served 1999-2007) was close to (Shehu) Yar’Adua. At the state level, various governors and former governors (for example Jonah Jang of Plateau and Murtala Nyako of Adamawa) were military governors prior to 1999. Even Jonathan has connections (as noted above, he was Obasanjo’s pick for Yar’Adua’s Vice President in 2007) to former military rulers. In this context, Buhari’s candidacy is not anomalous – and it does not automatically make him a thug.

Finally, Buhari’s candidacy in 2015 is a different thing than his candidacy in 2011. His campaign has certainly gained strength from anxieties about security – but I would argue that it has gained far more from the skillful politicking of APC leaders, particularly former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu.

In 2011, the electoral map in Nigeria looked simple: Buhari won twelve northern states, Jonathan won the rest of the country. The 2011 map fit the international media’s narrative of Nigeria as divided into a “Muslim north” and a “Christian south.” Buhari appeared to be the Northern Muslim candidate, end of story.

That map and that narrative may not work in 2015. The APC’s path to victory involves holding the northern vote but also expanding it to make gains in the southwest (the home turf of Tinubu and many other APC leaders, as well as Obasanjo, who recently endorsed Buhari) and the Middle Belt (an ethnically and religiously diverse section of the old “Northern Region” from the early days of Nigerian multiparty politics). Buhari may be the face of the APC, but the party has sought to turn its state-level strength in the southwest (where it holds several governorships, including Lagos) into a core element of a presidential victory. It is no accident that Buhari’s running mate is Yemi Osinbajo, Tinubu’s former attorney general and a friend of an influential Christian pastor in the southwest.

Conclusion

The trope of “the bumbler vs. the thug” distorts understanding of the two leading candidates in Nigeria’s presidential elections. Moreover, the “bumbler vs. thug” narrative directs our attention to the far northeast as though Boko Haram is that only force that matters in Nigerian politics, and thereby distracts us from the evolving and contested electoral map.

Key Economic Debates in Nigeria’s Election

Nigeria’s national and state elections are approaching (now March 28 and April 11). Many journalists and commentators have depicted them largely – sometimes exclusively – in terms of security and the violence by the Boko Haram sect. That perspective misses a great deal of the picture. For example, the campaign has sparked important debates about the state of Nigeria’s economy – debates that have particular resonance in the context of falling oil prices, which have hurt government revenues and weakened the naira.

The economic debates going on in Nigeria are sophisticated, and they involve real issues. The debates challenge the often-heard narrative that African elections are about personalities and networks, not issues. I’m not saying personalities won’t matter; I am saying that the campaign is not issue-free.

To get a sense of the economic debates, I’d recommend two pieces – or rather, one piece and one conversation.

First is former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu‘s “Slum[p] in Oil Prices: A Progressive Way Out.” Tinubu is a key leader in the opposition coalition the All Progressives Congress (APC), which has nominated former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate. In this piece, Tinubu articulates his opposition to austerity. He argues for decoupling the naira from the dollar and running a deficit into to fund projects (especially infrastructure) that will put large numbers of people to work.

Second is former Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo’s debate with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (h/t Zainab Usman). Soludo served from 2004 to 2009 (under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Umaru Yar’Adua, but not under incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan).

In his first piece, “Buhari vs. Jonathan” Soludo stated that he was an undecided voter and wrote, “The two main parties talk around the major development challenges—corruption, insecurity, economy (unemployment/poverty, power, infrastructure, etc) health, education, etc. However, it is my considered view that none of them has any credible agenda to deal with the issues, especially within the context of the evolving global economy and Nigeria’s broken public finance.” Soludo directed attention to what he called historically unprecedented poverty and unemployment rates (71% and 24%).

Soludo’s essay provoked a response from Okonjo-Iweala, which in turn drew a reply from Soludo. Beyond the personal invective, there is a deadly serious struggle over statistics – whose are accurate, and even whose are genuine. The APC’s Kayode Fayemi (who was voted out as governor of Ekiti State in the southwest in an off-cycle election last June) also joined the debate. The full exchange is worth reading.

With over six weeks left in the campaign (due to the postponement of the elections), it will be worth watching how these debates continue to play out. It is also worth noting the role of the Finance Minister as a participant, but even more importantly as a symbol, in these debates – opponents and critics of Jonathan’s regime have focused on her and her credibility as they make the case that Jonathan’s administration, despite having an internationally-known economist as a core part of the team, has failed to make the economy work for ordinary Nigerians. We’ll see, then, what kind of economic arguments the Jonathan team puts forward in this final stretch of the campaign.

 

Nigeria: Key Statements on the Postponement of the Elections

Late on Saturday, February 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman Attahiru Jega announced the postponement of the country’s national and state elections. Originally scheduled for February 14 (national) and 28 (state), the dates will now be, respectively, March 28 and April 11. The Constitution sets May 29 as inauguration day, which many Nigerians view as “sacrosanct” – so further delays could be even more contentious.

The administration of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan began to press for a delay on January 22. National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki recommended a delay on two grounds: the incomplete distribution of Permanent Voters’ Cards and the security situation in northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram sect is based. These two issues are not entirely linked: card distribution has lagged in Lagos, which is about as far from the northeast as one can get and still be in Nigeria. As late as February 5, Jega asserted INEC’s readiness to proceed with the vote as scheduled.

The postponement has occasioned outcry within Nigeria and abroad. Rumors are swirling that the administration may move to force Jega out. The international media generally feels that the delay benefits Jonathan by giving him more time to make a tangible improvement in the security situation as well as to strengthen his re-election prospects (through various means). The administration, however, has denied pressuring Jega to delay.

I’ve rounded up a few key statements with excerpts and commentary:

  • Jega: “Our level of preparedness, despite a few challenges, is sufficient to conduct free, fair and credible elections as scheduled on February 14th and February 28th…But as I mentioned earlier, there are some other variables equally crucial for successful conduct of the 2015 general elections that are outside the control of INEC. One important variable is security for the elections…Where the security services strongly advise otherwise, it would be unconscionable of the Commission to deploy personnel and call voters out in such a situation.” (For me, the takeaway here is that Jega is placing responsibility for the call onto the security chiefs.)
  • Jonathan campaign/People’s Democratic Party (PDP): “With this decision, INEC has allayed the fears of many of our citizens that they may not have had the opportunity to vote for the candidates and parties of their choice on Election Day…We are constrained to take this opportunity to wholeheartedly condemn the opposition APC [the All Progressives Congress, the major opposition coalition) for its paranoid delusions and its far-fetched and childish conspiracy theories when it comes to the issue of poll shift. By insisting that the elections should be conducted on February 14th the opposition was not only dangerously flirting with chaos but was also putting our country firmly on the path of confrontation, division, injustice, disaster and destruction.” (This gives a sense of how sharp the rhetoric is, and how the postponement has become a partisan issue.)
  • Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (APC candidate and Jonathan’s main challenger): “As a Nigerian and a presidential candidate in the elections, I share in the disappointment and frustration of this decision. This postponement coming a week to the first election has raised so many questions, many of which shall be asked in the days ahead. However, we must not allow ourselves to be tempted into taking actions that could further endanger the democratic process. Our country is going through a difficult time in the hands of terrorists. Any act of violence can only complicate the security challenges in the country and provide further justification to those who would want to exploit every situation to frustrate the democratic process in the face of certain defeat at the polls. If anything, this postponement should strengthen our resolve and commitment to rescue our country from the current economic and social collapse from this desperate band. Our desire for change must surpass their desperation to hold on to power at all cost.” (For me, the takeaway here is the effort that Buhari is making to project calm leadership. Buhari has sometimes been portrayed in the international and Nigerian media as a strongman former military ruler and a pro-Northern Islamist, and here as elsewhere he is trying to undo that image.)
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry: “The United States is deeply disappointed by the decision to postpone Nigeria’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for February 14. Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable, and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process. The international community will be watching closely as the Nigerian government prepares for elections on the newly scheduled dates. The United States underscores the importance of ensuring that there are no further delays.” (The U.S. is being clear that it sees the postponement as a political, rather than a logistically necessary, move. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office statement is similar, though a notch softer in tone.)
  • The BBC has some “man on the street” reactions and some coverage of anti-postponement protests by the APC.

Finally, Karen Attiah of the Washington Post has a good piece laying out why this delay is problematic: it is unlikely to bring a rapid improvement in the security situation, which is a long-term challenge; and it undermines the credibility and independence of INEC, which could exacerbate already strong mistrust of the process among many Nigerian voters.