Six weeks to defeat Boko Haram, Really?

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On 7th February 2015, one week before elections were set to take place, Nigeria’s electoral commission (INEC) announced that it was postponing elections for 6 weeks. The reason provided for this postponement was that INEC had received a letter from the national security adviser warning that the security of the elections “could not be guaranteed” due to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of the country. The letter requested a six week delay to election proceedings so that Nigeria’s military could secure this region before elections take place.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) supported INEC’s motionand President Goodluck Jonathan described it as not a “big deal”, which is unsurprising seeing that the request came from within the current administration. However, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) heavily criticised the action referring to it as a “major setback for democracy”. APC members also alleged that this was a ploy by the PDP in order to help it secure another electoral victory. Although the PDP were quick to deny these allegations, with its spokesperson, Olisa Metuh, quoted as stating that the PDP “did not stand to benefit from it”, there did appear to be growing support for a postponement within the PDP prior to the announcement. In January 2015, President Jonathan’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, urged the electoral commission to delay the elections whilst speaking at Chatham House. Furthermore, the PDP’s leader in Lagos state, Olabode George, similarly stated his support for a postponement in January 2015, despite previously dismissing suggestions of a delay in 2014.

Many APC members claim that this shift towards support for a postponement on the part of senior PDP figures indicates that the delay is politically driven and a result of the first serious electoral challenge the PDP has had to face. This argument is given greater credence by the fact that before the announcement on 7th February 2015, proponents of an election delay, including Dasuki, had argued that it should be postponed in order to allow more time for voter card distribution. Thus, insecurity caused by the Boko Haram insurgency appeared to be used as a secondary justification for delaying elections after it became clear that INEC would not postpone the elections on the grounds of voter card distribution. Moreover, the level of the security threat posed by Boko Haram has not suddenly increased in the past few weeks. Although it has increased over the past year, this has been a consistent unfolding situation of which the government and security forces have been fully aware. It is also a justification which can be used continuously until Boko Haram are eradicated, which raises fears that another postponement may follow in the future.

As a result of this, a number of rumours and accusations have been spread about the motivations behind such a delay. This has included the allegation that the PDP plan to remove INEC’s chairman, Attahiru Jega, and replace him with someone who would help the PDP rig the election. Although the PDP have strongly denied this allegation and maintain their support for Jega, allegations such as this gain a lot of traction in countries like Nigeria, where elections have so often been marred by accusations of electoral fraud and corruption. Even some of the PDP’s primaries in late 2014 were surrounded by such allegations. Furthermore, accusations of plans to commit electoral fraud are likely to be stronger this year due to the fact that these are the closest fought elections since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Despite only forming in 2013, the APC has made substantial ground in Nigerian politics, drawing together previously divided opposition parties and receiving a number of defections from the PDP, which has caused the eradication of the PDP’s majority in the National Assembly. In the APC’s presidential primary its members voted unanimously in favour of former military head of state and runner-up in the country’s past three presidential elections, Muhammadu Buhari. Although there is a certain degree of reservation concerning Buhari’s military past and alleged association with radical Islam, his reputation as an anti-corruption disciplinarian seems to strike a chord with a large section of the Nigerian electorate. Buhari’s APC has positioned itself as a viable alternative to Jonathan’s PDP, whose popularity has been severely damaged by a number of corruption allegations and its inability to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency. It appears that even voters who are unsure about supporting Buhari may support the APC because of their disappointment at the record of the current administration. Thus, this year’s election is set to be very close with a small majority for either the PDP or APC being the most likely result, if it is held at all.

Indeed it is questionable what effect a limited postponement will have on the election results. Although a delay will certainly favour the wealthier PDP in terms of campaign budgets, the perception that the party was behind the delay has the potential to damage their popularity further and play into the hands of the APC. This was illustrated by comments made by former President and senior figure in the PDP, Olusegun Obasanjo, on 10th February 2015. He warned against the delay, suggesting that it might have been planned, and was quoted as stating “why shouldn’t I support him” in reference to Buhari. This was then followed by his resignation, or possibly expulsion, as argued by the Ogun State chapter of the PDP, from the party on 16th February 2015. There is also the possibility that the extra time will be used to enable electoral fraud, as alleged by certain APC members. The risk of this has definitely increased due to how closely-fought the elections are projected to be but any large scale electoral fraud would draw considerable condemnation from the international community and cause protests across Nigeria. Nonetheless, merely the perception of electoral fraud can have its own consequences.

With regards to the official reason for calling the postponement it is highly unlikely that the Nigerian military will be able to secure the country’s northeast region in 6 weeks from an insurgency which is in its sixth year. Although military successes against Boko Haram will help to boost the PDP’s waning popularity, it will also highlight its previous failures against the group over the past year. A degree of improvement can be seen with the increase in regional co-operation but Boko Haram continues to launch attacks on towns and villages across the northeast. Furthermore, on 17th February 2015, the group released a video in which their leader, Abubakar Shekau, explicitly vowed to disrupt the elections. In the video he stated “this election will not be held even if we are dead…Allah will never allow you to do it”. It is therefore highly likely that even after the six week delay elections taking place in the northeast will suffer from a similar insecurity to that which existed on 14th February.

The most likely outcome of the postponement is increased political tension and in turn a greater likelihood of election violence. This has already been made apparent by reports of an explosion and gunshots at an APC rally in Rivers State on 17th February 2015. Furthermore, although Buhari’s initial call for calm following the postponement helped to prevent any large scale unrest, people still took to the streets to protest against INEC’s decision. These protests were overwhelmingly peaceful but if it appears that the PDP are attempting to use this time to create an artificial advantage or possibly initiate another postponement the ensuing protests may be harder to control. Moreover, due to the competitiveness of the election, a longer campaign will increase the probability of accusations concerning electoral fraud and intimidation. This will create a tenser post-election environment, which is more conducive to election violence. Furthermore, this is exacerbated by Nigeria’s struggling economy which has been hit hard by the fall in global oil prices. This will help to accentuate societal pressures, particularly if the winning party is perceived to be favouring states controlled by them in terms of proposed austerity measures, and increase the probability of political violence.

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