Three Key Issues Dominating Nigeria's Election
In March 2015, Muhammadu Buhari made history by becoming the first presidential candidate in Nigeria to unseat an incumbent president in an election.
Buhari was elected on a promise to make progress on three issues of critical importance to Nigerians: security, the economy, and corruption. In his inaugural address Buhari stated “Insecurity, pervasive corruption, the hitherto unending and seemingly impossible fuel and power shortages are the immediate concerns. We are going to tackle them head on. Nigerians will not regret that they have entrusted national responsibility to us.”
As President Buhari finds himself running for re-election four years later, the main opposition candidate–former vice president Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)–has centered his campaign on attacking Buhari’s lack of progress in these domains. The outcome of this election hinges on the level of voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, and on whether Nigerian voters believe that Atiku will do better.
In 2015, the militant group Boko Haram controlled territory equivalent to the size of Belgium. The group was ranked as the deadliest terrorist organization in the world, being responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014 alone. By comparison, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL), which at the time dominated international headlines, was responsible for 6,073 deaths that year. Currently, the group is only in control of slivers of territory and in 2017 was responsible for 900 deaths. But In 2018 the security environment took a drastic turn for the worst with the resurgence of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a group originally formed in 2015. ISWAP, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, has proven itself lethal, successfully overrunning military bases across northeastern Nigeria and demoralizing many in the country’s armed services. At the same time, Boko Haram has shifted its strategy to guerilla warfare, continuing to carryout suicide bombings across northern Nigeria.
A new security crisis has manifested itself that was not even on the radar when President Buhari took office: the conflict between farmers and nomadic cattle herders in the Middle Belt of the country. While tensions have existed for decades between the largely Christian farmers and the Fulani Muslim herders, they have reached a breaking point in the past year. In 2018, clashes between the two groups killed over 2,000, surpassing insurgencies in the north as the deadliest conflict in Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and ethnic tensions have reached an all-time high. Buhari claims he is committed to ending the conflict, having deployed troops to the region and consulted with farmer and herder leaders. However, many view these actions as perfunctory, not doing anything to halt the bloodshed. Buhari himself has been accused of sheltering many of the perpetrators of the violence, who hail from his own religion and ethnic group.
Atiku has lambasted Buhari’s failure to fully eliminate Boko Haram, and resolve the farmer-herder conflict in the Middle Belt region. However, he himself has yet to lay out a comprehensive security strategy and has made only vague promises about improving existing policy. For instance, Atiku has stated that he plans to secure Nigeria’s borders and improve morale amongst the security forces but has not given any details on how he plans to do so.
In 2015, the economy of Nigeria was trending towards a recession and corruption was endemic in both the public and private sectors. In 2017 and 2018 the Nigerian economy inched out of a recession and is projected to grow by 2.3 percent in 2019. This is due to actions taken by Buhari’s administration, including pinning the Naira to the US dollar in 2016 and reforming some sectors to increase foreign direct investment. While the Nigerian economy in no longer in recession, the Buhari administration has failed to decrease the country’s economic reliance on hydrocarbons; the main act needed to diversify the economy.
In spite of the GDP growth that Nigeria experienced during Buhari’s first term as president, it is important to consider how the economy is affecting average Nigerians. One of the most important economic indicators in Nigeria is unemployment and underemployment, especially among people aged 15-35. Buhari has seen no success in this regard, as the unemployment rate rose each year of his presidency. In July 2018, the unemployment rate in Nigeria was 23.1 percent, compared to a mere 10 percent in July 2016. Average Nigerians will likely be much more concerned about the growing unemployment rate than the country’s GDP growth.
The growing unemployment rate is Buhari’s central weakness in the election. Atiku has an extensive business background, having made over one billion dollars in the private sector. Therefore, he could be perceived to be a better bet to decrease the growing unemployment rate. However, Atiku has yet to give any specific policy proposals aside from soundbites regarding how he plans to address the chronic problem of unemployment that is cancerous in not only Nigeria, but virtually all countries across Africa.
For decades, Nigeria has been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries globally by international watchdogs such as Transparency International. Buhari has taken some actions that have made an impact on corruption in the country, the most significant being the creation of a single treasury account for the payment of government employees, making it more difficult to intentionally misallocate funds. The Nigerian public has expressed confidence in Buhari’s anti-corruption efforts. In 2017, 59 percent of Nigerians had a favorable perception of the government’s fight against corruption, up from only 21 percent when Buhari took office in 2015. Yet, he has failed to crackdown on corruption in his inner circle, as members of his cabinet are accused of stealing billions of dollars from the country’s treasury. Atiku also has a record of being corrupt himself, having been at the center of domestic and international corruption scandals during his time as vice president in the early 2000s.
Another issue that has been ever-present during Buhari’s reelection campaign is his severe illness. During his presidency, Buhari spent at least 15 percent of his time on medical leave abroad. He was gone so often, and with so little explanation to the public, that a substantial amount of Nigerians believed he was deceased and had been replaced by a Sudanese clone. This rumor was so widespread that Buhari felt compelled to publicly deny it. However, Buhari’s illness may actually benefit his campaign. Buhari’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is widely popular. Some Nigerians have said that they will vote for Buhari with the hope that he will not finish out his term, and Osinbajo will become president.
The Nigerian elections are likely to be extremely close. Yet, a large amount of the country’s population does not feel inspired by either candidate. In fact, turnout is predicted to be low, especially among youths, and many Nigerians have stated that they feel they are choosing between two bad candidates. The election will likely be decided on if Nigerians believe that Buhari or Atiku will improve the country’s standing on the three aforementioned issues.
R. Maxwell Bone is an intern in the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on twitter @maxbone55.