Elections in Nigeria: The Precarious Choice between Democratic Order and Security

20 February 2015

The upcoming presidential election in Nigeria has been a trending topic for the last month, raising a number of questions locally and internationally over issues ranging from security and the economy to corruption and employment. Marred by the threat of electoral violence and insecurity in the north-east from the ceaseless terror-driven attacks by Boko Haram, the election which was supposed to have taken place on 14th February will be giving Nigerians the choice of addressing these issues by selecting the leadership they think is best fitted for the job. Their choice is still there, but now it has been postponed by the INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) to the 28th March. The reasons given: the very problem they were meant to address – insecurity and instability, mainly that in the north-eastern region of the country. The outcome of this postponement is yet to be revealed, however many observers have quickly realised that the precarious choice the government has made between upholding democratic order and dealing with security concerns has mostly negative implications, particularly for political and social stability.

HART has just released a briefing on this topic, setting out a clear timeline of recent events relating to the elections and the Boko Haram insurgency. Download it here.


The decision to postpone the elections

In their decision to postpone the elections, the INEC’s attempts at strengthening political capacity and the rule of law may have actually undermined any democratic developments in Nigeria and West Africa. The importance of Nigeria as a regional power broker has reflective ramifications across the region, and that is an aspect of the country no leader could have ignored until now. As Africa’s most populous country and the largest oil exporter, the economic and political effects from the postponement of the elections will unavoidably echo region-wide as Nigeria sets a poor example of leadership and instability. Furthermore, on a local level the INEC’s independence has also been tainted by the manner in which it announced the postponement. Its power to set election dates has practically been taken over by the military.

Citing security concerns in the north-eastern part of Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s insurgency has lead to more than 1.5 million displaced and thousands dead, the electoral commission has a reputedly valid reason to postpone the elections. At first glance, guaranteeing voter’s security in the north-east is indeed a constitutional obligation and the call for credible elections has been voiced by a number of interested parties. However, constitutional obligations to protect the citizens of the nation have existed since the creation of the federal republic of Nigeria in 1999 – “Chapter 2 – Provision 14(2)(b): It is hereby, accordingly, declared that: the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”. It seems rather inconceivable there is any credible explanation for an attempt to address the security situation in the north-east now, after Goodluck Jonathan’s government has downplayed the threat posed by Boko Haram for the last 6 years. There is also the fact that the police and the civil defence corps are the bodies responsible for election security and they had asserted that they are ready to tackle all security issues in the north-east.

Nonetheless, the government of the incumbent President has tried to identify the areas where most of the budget should go to and has created various strategies to tackle them. In the words of Mr. Sambo Dasuki, National Security Adviser – “We have developed a new national security strategy that puts our people at the heart of our efforts, a national counterterrorism strategy that employs both hard and soft power, and an economic revitalization plan that will bring succour to those most vulnerable and those affected by violence” – this to most observers will however be a quote that once again questions the absence of this vision from a government that has sworn to lead the country according to its constitution notwithstanding its recent efforts.


Can Boko Haram be defeated within 6 weeks?

It seems very unlikely that the Nigerian military will be able to defeat or halt Boko Haram’s insurgency before the election date on 28th March. If they haven’t been able to accomplish this task over the last 6 years, what is it that will make people believe this is doable now? Despite some recent victories and the announcement of a regional joint military force being sent to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram, there have been no other major attempts or announcement for a serious engagement against the group.

It is also be ironic to consider that this military that has in the past committed human rights abuses itself, now claims to be a force adhering to the principles of democratic order and IHL (International Humanitarian Law), standing against the perpetrators of human rights abuses and terrorism. This is an army that had to embarrassingly retract its claims that it had secured the return of the 129 Chibok girls that were abducted by Boko Haram in April 2014.


The State of the economy

The state of the economy in Nigeria has also been called into question recently. It is one of the contentious issues that have been discussed widely amongst the candidates. Falling oil prices and the ever descending value of the national currency have lead to economic strains and have given a platform for Muhammadu Buhari, the opposition leader of the APC (All Progressives Congress) to boast his administration’s ability to create beneficial and sustainable security, economic and anti-corruption policies by peacefully running its primaries in December 2014.

Calls of questionable credibility behind the reasoning for postponement have also lead to accusations against Goodluck Jonathan’s unfair use of state funding to finance his presidential campaign against Mr. Buhari. This of course is legal under Nigerian law as the President presides over great amount of power, however it undermines fairness as Mr. Buhari has sponsored his campaign privately and a period of 6 more weeks will inevitably allow Mr. Jonathan to attempt to gain back areas where he is believed to be least popular.


The despondent options

While incumbent Goodluck Jonathan is a questionable choice at best, his opponent Mr. Buhari has had his fair share of undemocratic incidents. In 1983 he launched a coup against the then democratically elected government of Shehu Shagari and has been cited to express no regret over the alleged abuse during his rule until 1985. Is this a reflection of what his presidency might look like should he succeed the current administration? How different would that be from the army that Mr. Jonathan currently commands?

It is hard to imagine either of the candidates doing a much better job than the other at tackling the issues most prevalent in Nigeria today. And nevertheless, the polls will be open on 28th March when the people of Nigeria will at least have the illusion that they will be democratically deciding an elected leadership.


Picture credit: Jason Silberberg /

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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