By Mmakgantsi Mafojane
As interest in Africa has increased in recent years, the presidential elections in Nigeria have come to gain global attention. And at a time when many African countries are making strides toward consolidating their democracies—holding repeated successful elections with peaceful transfers of power—the postponement of elections in the continent’s richest and most populous country raises a number of concerns.
High Potential for Post-Election Violence
The 2015 elections will be a high stakes affair where longstanding tensions are likely to play out. The threat of post-election violence in the event of a Goodluck Jonathan victory is considerable and driven by a host of factors, including ethnic, religious, and regional tensions. The fact that the 2015 elections will be the most closely contested race to date is likely to heighten tensions with longtime supporters of opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, and his All Progressives Congress (APC), already expressing suspicion that fraud and vote rigging will have played a role should incumbent Jonathan win.
Fear of post-election violence is also high due to the particularly acerbic tone of the campaign, especially at the state level. A February 17 attack on an APC rally in Okrika, Rivers State, deep in the country's southern oil region, as well as the subsequent blaming of Jonathan’s People Democratic Party (PDP) demonstrates just how volatile the election situation is throughout Nigeria.
In addition, reports of APC groups claiming that PDP governors wish Buhari dead, or are “considering snipers,” can only heighten tension—regardless of their veracity. As a result, while both Jonathan and Buhari have signed an accord committed to keeping the peace during and after elections, some degree of election-related violence is to be expected.
Free and Fair Elections?
Nigeria's elections have historically been plagued by widespread fraud and numerous irregularities. In 2011, these were significantly reduced as amendments were made to both the country's Electoral Act and the constitution. These recommendations were designed to not only limit opportunities for irregularities but to improve confidence in future elections. And while many Nigerians felt that these reforms had improved transparency and credibility in 2011, election irregularities continue to be a problem. In fact, in a recent poll, just 32 percent of the population expressed faith in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Warranted or not, the recent postponement of elections has raised further questions about the body's independence and credibility as the delay is seen to favor the ruling party.
Two of INEC’s major challenges have been the distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) and the ensuring of secure voting sites to people displaced by the conflict with the jihadist insurgency Boko Haram. With over one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the largely opposition-supporting region, concerns have been raised that they will be unable to cast their ballots in secure environments. While INEC initially said postponement would be unnecessary, the security situation was ultimately cited as the reason elections would be postponed. However, many believe that the postponement decision was made under pressure from the PDP, who seems most likely to benefit from such a delay. As a result, the INEC's credibility has taken a hit. Further delays in voting will undoubtedly undercut any remaining confidence in the Commission.
The Threat of Boko Haram
Among the biggest concerns surrounding the 2015 elections is the fear of escalating attacks by Boko Haram both during and following elections. Over the last year, attacks by the group have intensified in both scale and frequency, and Boko Haram leadership has pledged to interrupt elections.
While the insurgents pose a very real security threat to the country, many have pointed to the manner in which political leaders have used the insurgency in the northeast to gain political capital. In early February, protesters in Abuja called on INEC not to bow to pressure and postpone elections with many believing that the postponement is designed more to buy the PDP time to strengthen their campaign, than to make inroads against Boko Haram. And while the government has taken a stronger line against Boko Haram since the postponement, recently reclaiming the city of Baga, the likelihood that a six-week offensive will calm the deeply unstable region remains to be seen.
Issues Surrounding a Further Postponement
While highly contentious, the postponement falls within the ambit of the constitution as well as the Electoral Act. With the undeniable threat posed by Boko Haram, INEC can be considered to have acted within its mandate. However, numerous questions have arisen as to what the implications may be if the security situation in the North East still remains after six weeks. According to the constitution, the deadline for the conduct of elections is 30 days prior to the latest possible handover date of May 29, 2015. As a result, a second postponement to any date after April 29 will be in direct violation of the constitution and call into question Jonathan use, or perhaps abuse, of political power.