Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Nuances of Nigerian democracy

Against the background of the Boko Haram menace in the north of the country, the Nigerian presidential elections ran fairly smoothly this week, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Nigeria’s southern and predominantly Christian voters vented their spleen on the Muslim northern Nigerian presidential hopeful Muhammadu Buhari in the elections this week. Ultimately, in an ironic twist of fate, Buhari emerged as the winner and his supporters streamed unto the streets in jubilation.

The coffers are running dry in oil-dependent Nigeria, and even before the final tally emerged it was almost certain that the Christian southerner, incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, was the frontrunner with the electorate. Buhari won 15.5 million votes against Jonathan’s 13.3 million. Jonathan conceded defeat.

After a slow start, Nigerian voters flocked to the polling stations for the elections. A shake up in the status quo was not on the cards, but the clock is ticking in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.

The presidential poll on Saturday and Sunday could be described as something of a clear run for the incumbent. Christians in southern Nigeria were preparing for Easter celebrations, and they overwhelmingly voted for the Christian president. Voters are also electing members of the country’s house of representatives and senate.

Washington and London voiced reservations about the elections, though both admitted they were peaceful and orderly.  “So far, we have seen no evidence of systemic manipulation of the process,” British foreign secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of state John Kerry announced in a joint statement.

 “But there are disturbing indications that the collation process, in which the votes are finally counted, may be subject to deliberate political interference.”

These were the closest presidential and parliamentary contests since the end of military rule in Nigeria in 1999. The western Nigerian, predominantly ethnic Yoruba states of Oyo, Kogi, Osun and Ondo voted against Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Born to a family of canoe-makers, Jonathan enjoys the loyalty of the majority of southern Christians. The Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria, however, are equally divided between Muslims, Christians and animists, and are the strongest bastion of traditional African religions in the country.

Jonathan’s ruling PDP captured the bulk of the vote in Nasarawa, Ekiti and Enugu states, as well as in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Nasarawa is a predominantly Christian state in the middle belt that straddles a huge swathe of territory between northern and southern Nigeria. A curfew was declared in Bauchi state after fighting between the security forces and the militant Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.

The PDP has dominated Nigerian politics since 1999.

General Mohamed Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) declared the election process in the southern, predominantly Christian Rivers state to be “a sham and a charade.” Jonathan was born in neighbouring Bayelsa state, which, like Rivers, is mostly Christian. According to the BBC, “there was no election in Rivers,” quoting Achinike William-Wobodo, a polling agent for the opposition APC.

Controversy thus continues to bedevil the Nigerian body politic, and political wrangling remains a threat to the nascent democratic system adopted by Nigeria after decades of military rule. “Whatever trash will [be] announced as the result of today’s elections is not acceptable to us,” an APC statement read.

In the northern state of Kaduna, notorious for post-election violence in 2011, the streets of the metropolis also called Kaduna were deserted and shops were closed. But what has been really unsettling is the religious divide between north and south, along with Nigeria’s politics that continue to spiral downwards.

Oil revenues fail to filter through as the majority of the population lives in abject poverty. Only the elite benefit from the country’s oil wealth. “We appeal to all Nigerians to remain peaceful as they await the return of the results,” the chief of the Nigerian Electoral Commission Attahiru Jega pleaded with his compatriots.

The conundrum of poverty amid plenty also explains why Boko Haram has gained recruits in north-eastern Nigeria. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau vowed earlier in the month to disrupt the elections, calling them “un-Islamic”.

The presidential and parliamentary polls were first scheduled to be held on 14 February, but because of fears of insecurity they were postponed to March. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s rudderless anti-corruption strategy has been castigated by human rights activists at home and abroad. Ironically, on 2 August 2010 Jonathan launched his “Roadmap for Power Sector Reform” policy to rescue Nigeria from its dependence on oil.

It was against this backdrop that former colonial power Britain and the United States warned the Nigerian authorities to jettison any attempts to distort the results of last Saturday’s presidential polls, sadly alluding to Nigeria’s neo-colonial status.

“The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom would be very concerned by any attempts to undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission or its chairman, or in any way to distort the expressed will of the Nigerian people,” a statement said.

 A video was recently released that apparently exposed Electoral Commission officials colluding with the authorities to rig the elections in favour of Jonathan and his ruling Party. Jonathan, who launched the anti-corruption “Transformation Agenda” in 2011, denied the charges. The ruling party congratulated the incumbent president for his “early lead” over his rival, claiming that it had won in 23 states.

A former military head of state and a former minister for petroleum and natural resources, Jonathan’s opponent Buhari posed a threat to the incumbent president.

Nigerian presidents have traditionally had to show themselves to be successful, but Jonathan is a beleaguered president befuddled by dissenters of all sorts.

Former military strongman general Ibrahim Babangida, a Muslim northerner, spearheaded a nationwide campaign protesting against the removal of fuel subsidies by the Jonathan administration in the run-up to the elections. It has since been announced by the Electoral Commission that the governorship and state assemblies elections will take place in April. 

Some commentators say that the Nigerian media demonises Muslims, especially in the wake of the Boko Haram atrocities in north-eastern Nigeria.  But the Christian/Muslim northern/southern divide is not all pervasive, and some of Jonathan’s most vociferous critics are fellow southerners and Christians.

The leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main oil-producing region of the country, Henry Okah, stated openly that Jonathan had masterminded the 1 October 2010 independence day bomb attacks. Okah also declared that Jonathan had planned to assassinate him. The Jonathan administration has denied charges of terrorism in the oil-rich region.

As Nigeria grapples with the rising tide of home-grown extremism, whether from Boko Haram in the Muslim north or alienated ethnic groups in the south, there are growing fears that the authorities could impinge further on civil liberties in Africa’s largest democracy.

The Jonathan administration has resoundingly rejected such criticisms, however. The country, often called “Africa’s Giant,” has a population of an estimated 180 million. It is a federal nation with 36 states. Jonathan has an eye for historical hindsight, and he works closely with other African nations, soliciting their tacit support.

Okah was found guilty by a South African court of 13 terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 24 years in jail in January 2013, leaving Nigeria’s oil-rich south-eastern maritime border area in disarray.

Okah represents disenchanted southerners, while Jonathan stands for stability. Buhari, a member of the northern Muslim aristocracy, stands in stark contrast to Boko Haram, a movement that pays allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group, declaring the territory it holds in north-eastern Nigeria to be part of the “caliphate” of IS leader Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

On the eve of the elections, Nigerian troops freed women held hostage by Boko Haram forces in the town of Gwoza.

It is not yet known which party will control the impressive green-domed Nigerian National Assembly in the capital Abuja. Nigeria has provided Africa with an extraordinary example, though not an exemplary one, and only further public opprobrium will press Nigeria’s political establishment into reforms.

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