What You Need to Know About Nigeria’s Upcoming Election

The February 14th presidential elections in Nigeria signal an important milestone in the political trajectory of Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria has held three successive presidential elections since its return to democracy in 1999 after years of authoritarian rule. The presidential elections, which occur on a four year cycle, have varied in terms of accepted standards of free, fair, and transparent elections. The 2007 elections, in particular, were described by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an American democracy promotion organization that had observed the elections, as “well below international standards and below the standards Nigeria set for itself in the previous two elections….” In contrast, the 2011 elections were described by IRI “as a major step forward in advancing Nigeria’s democracy.”

During each of these elections,the center-right People’s Democratic Party (PDP) emerged as the victor. The electoral success of the PDP mirrors a trend of single-party dominant countries seen elsewhere in Africa, such as South Africa. The PDP has, nonetheless, experienced at various times electoral defeat to rival parties at the state level.

There have been a number of reasons that opposition parties have failed to gain power at the federal level. The sheer size of the country and its vast population pose practical and financial challenges to party organization. Furthermore, significant fissures exist within the citizenry based on region, language, ethnicity, and religion. Finally, the ruling party has not hesitated to employ the power of incumbency to its advantage.

In the upcoming presidential elections, the PDP for the first time faces an organized and more evenly matched political rival. President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP, seeking another term in office, is opposed by Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Former General Buhari is no political novice, having once served as head of the country after taking power in 1983 in a military coup. After Nigeria’s return to democratic rule, Buhari ran for president in the 2003, 2007, and 2011 elections. The formation of the center-left APC in 2013 through the merger of several opposition parties, as well as the defection to the APC of a number of PDP governors and legislators, have provided Buhari the electoral reach and depth necessary to confront the PDP.

Public opinion polls show a tight presidential race between the two candidates with the outcome too close to call. Both Jonathan and Buhari have been actively campaigning in the remaining weeks to the election. The two leaders, along with a number of opposition leaders, signed a pledge (the Abuja Accord) in January promising to run issues-oriented campaigns, abide by electoral laws, and not incite violence during the elections. Previous presidential elections have been marred by election and post-election violence that led to a number of deaths and the destruction of property. The competitive nature of the 2015 presidential election makes the possibility of violence, especially post-election violence by the losing party’s followers, a concern.

At the heart of the election process lies the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). This powerful electoral body, created prior to the 1999 elections that returned democracy to Nigeria, oversees elections in the country. It has faced criticism in the past over allegations of political favoritism and incompetency. In 2010, just prior to the 2011 elections, President Jonathan nominated Attahiru Jega, formerly a professor and administrator at Bayero University in Kano, as the INEC chairman. Despite his short period of time in office prior to the elections, the 2011 elections were widely seen as representing a noticeable improvement over those in 2007.

Since then, INEC has instituted a number of reforms in the election process. These include a more accurate voter roll, the introduction of a new permanent voter card (PVC), a handheld verification device that confirms voter identity through the PVC, and greater transparency in voting tabulation results from the local through the national level. These measures are collectively intended to reduce the likelihood of electoral fraud, which had been observed in previous elections.

There are a number of hurdles on the path to free, fair, and transparent elections. First, the new voting technology and processes have not been previously employed or deployed for an actual election. INEC states that it has taken steps to provide for possible equipment and PVC card failure. Given the scale of the elections—approximately155,000 polling units—the possibility and consequences of technology failure cannot be easily dismissed. A related concern is that the voter cards may not be fully distributed by the time of election.

A second hurdle relates to security. Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, has established itself in parts of three states in northeast Nigeria. Government security forces have been unable to defeat Boko Haram and have lost control over growing parts of Nigeria. As a result, elections will not take place in regions under Boko Haram control. This could mean that in a razor thin presidential election, even if the polling elsewhere in the country goes well, the margin for victory could have been swung by voters who were unable to vote due to insecurity in Boko Haramaffected areas. If the polls throughout the country are marred by irregularities, then uncertainty regarding the outcome would be further amplified.

One presidential candidate will emerge victorious after the February 14th elections. The question remains as to whether the loser of the election will accept the results. It is certainly more likely to be the case if the elections are widely seen as free, fair, and transparent. If election results are very close, and the electoral process is compromised, then the possibility for post-election violence is higher. A peaceful, free, and fair election in which the loser gracefully accepts the voters’ verdict would indicate not only the deepening of Nigerian democracy, but serve as a model to other countries in Africa facing elections in the coming year.

Robert Lloyd, PhD, is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of International Studies and Languages, Professor of International Relations at Pepperdine University, where he also heads the International Studies Program. He recently returned from a joint National Democratic Institute/International Republican Institute pre-election assessment trip to Nigeria.

Related Experts: Robert Lloyd

Image: A man walks past campaign posters outside the venue for a campaign for Nigeria's former military ruler and presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) Muhammadu Buhari in Lagos January 30, 2015. Buhari pledged to cheering crowds in opposition stronghold Lagos that he would tackle the country's three greatest ills -- insecurity, inequality and corruption. Africa's most populous nation votes on Feb. 14 for either Buhari or President Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People's Democratic Party. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye