The importance of Nigeria’s elections:
What you need to know

The election could be incredibly close, if early polling is any indication. Reported.ly’s Kim Bui offers this overview.


On Saturday, March 28, millions of Nigerians head to the polls in a hotly contested election. Past elections have been fraught with violence. Worries are that this election, despite promises from every side, will be no different.

There is more at stake than who will be the president of Nigeria. The country, a major oil producer, is facing a terrorist threat in Boko Haram.

While the March 28 elections are parliamentary and gubernatorial in addition to presidential, much of the hype has been around the two main candidates: current president Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari.

The fight between the two could be incredibly close, if early polling is any indication.

The fervor has only increased since Nigeria delayed the elections six weeks from its original scheduled date of Feb. 14.

“No decision was taken to change the date,” Imo state governor Rochas Okorocha told the BBC and other news outlets last month. “The date remains February 14. INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) reassured us that they are prepared to conduct the election,”

Even so, the elections were delayed by six weeks.

There’s a benefit to waiting six weeks for elections, though.

Nigeria has implemented permanent voter cards (PVCs) to prevent voter fraud, which was a problem in the 2011 elections. The distribution of them has been tricky, however.

Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was in charge of distributing the cards. INEC had handed out 30 million cards as of late January, but they still had another 30 million to go, according to a national security adviser.

This, and worries about potential security threats because of Boko Haram, caused the election delay.



What everyone should know about Nigeria’s politics

Political parties and candidates

There are 14 candidates vying for votes, but two presidential candidates — and their parties — are the frontrunners:

  • The All Progressives Congress (APC) with candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former major general who took power during a military coup from late 1983 to 1985.
  • The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) with candidate (and current president) Goodluck Jonathan.

An explanation, courtesy of the Washington Post:

The PDP, which has dominated Nigeria’s political space since the 1999 transition to civilian rule, is also facing a more unified opposition than in the past. The All Progressives Congress (APC), a merger of opposition parties, is contesting the presidency, and its flag bearer, Muhammadu Buhari, has launched a vigorous challenge to the incumbent.

The two have faced off before, in 2011.

The BBC has broken down the difference between Jonathan and Buhari’s stances on issues. The two promise to tackle corruption, bring more jobs to Nigeria and tackle Boko Haram, in slightly different ways.

In truth, although the parties are campaigning pretty hard, even Nigerians have a tough time discerning the difference between the two.

What North and South Nigeria have to do with politics

The parties have much to do with Nigeria’s north-south divide. President Jonathan is labeled a southern ruler, and you can see as much in the election map below, which shows how the southern half of the country previously voted for him. Northern Nigeria is primarily Muslim, ruled by shariah law, while southern Nigeria is primarily Christian.

Prior to 2010, the presidency rotated between north and south. Since then, however, there has only been a president from the north for three of the last 15 years.

On the left, the results for the 2011 elections, showing the states won by Jonathan (green), Buhari (red), and Ribadu (blue ). On the right: Map delineating the northern and southern regions of Nigeria (Wikimedia Commons)

A short history of elections in Nigeria

In 1999, the first free elections ended 15 years of military rule. Former military general Olusegun Obasanjo won the vote. The next transfer of power took place in 2007, after Obasanjo termed out.

Women look for useful goods at the burned Zonkwa Market in Kaduna, Nigeria, Thursday, April 21, 2011 after post-election violence. (Sunday Alamba/AP)

Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was elected in a landslide, though there were wide reports of election tampering. Yar-Adua died in 2010.

After his death, Jonathan Goodluck became acting president, then was voted back into office during the next election.

The 2011 election was marred by violence. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 800 were killed in three days of rioting in 12 northern states.

Worries about the legitimacy of the elections themselves have been a worry for pretty much every single election since 1999.

From a Gallup poll:

Accusations of vote rigging and intimidation largely discredited the 2003 and 2007 votes, with European Union observers commenting that the 2007 general elections were the worst they had seen anywhere in the world. As a result, faith in the country’s electoral process remained low until after Nigeria’s successful 2011 national election, when half of adults (51%) expressed confidence. However, since that time, confidence in elections has steadily fallen each year.

Election violence

Pretty much everyone has denounced election-related violence, from the political parties themselves to politicians outside Nigeria, including President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited the country in January.

“…Violence has no place in democratic elections, and I can guarantee you that the perpetrators of such violence would not be welcome in the United States of America.
Conducting accountable, credible, peaceful elections will help put the Nigerian people on a path to prosperity and regional leadership that is needed in order to address a wide range of challenges in this part of the world, including, obviously, violent extremism.

Even so, both campaigns have experienced attacks and violence; the Council for Foreign Relations says 2015 could be an extremely violent election year for Nigeria.

As a result of concerns, officials tried to station soldiers at polling stations — a move that was overturned by the courts. They’ve also closed land and sea borders, and restricted vehicular movements on March 28 as a precautionary measures.

Social media and the elections

Take a look at Twitter in Nigeria (especially the hashtag #NigeriaDecides) and you’ll see pledges and criticisms of candidates. Both Buhari and Jonathan have used Twitter and social media to campaign.

The two parties and their supporter have gone back and forth on social media over serious issues like how to tackle Boko Haram, but there have also been personal attacks, such as whether Buhari was even eligible to run for president.

The onslaught of political messages has led to apathy and anger about the direction of the country, as recorded by Pew Research and seen in online discussions.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in The Atlantic that with all the cynical political messaging, many have become unenthusiastic about the elections:

“I don’t have a voter’s card, but if I did, I would vote for somebody I don’t like,” he said. “I don’t like Buhari. But Jonathan is not performing.”
Victor sounded like many people I know: utterly unenthusiastic about the two major candidates in our upcoming election.

Why do Nigeria’s elections matter to the rest of the world?

  • Nigeria is Africa’s largest and most populated country, with a population of some 177 million.
  • Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil, generating as much as 2.5 million barrels per day. (source)
  • Over 60 percent of Nigerians live in extreme poverty.
  • Boko Haram has now attacked three countries outside of Nigeria, and pledge allegiance to ISIS. Nigeria is one of a number of African countries working together to fight the terrorists.

Nearly 69 million Nigerians have registered to vote and nearly 56 million voter cards have been distributed. We’ll keep an eye on results Saturday.

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