I worked in Northern Nigeria during the early 1970s. The army managed to pack in three military coups during that time. One, the Dimka coup in 1976, was plotted in a polo club and supercharged by champagne. During military coups, we used to wait for the reaction of the regional, divisional commanders. Would they come on the radio in support? If only half of them bobbed up, pledging support, it could mean they were divided and, possibly, we were looking at the beginnings of a civil war. When the men with the guns disagreed with each other, it was time to decamp.
So national and state elections, which reinstated since 1999, are a step forward. Not a very big one given that the rival presidential candidates lack detectable policies other than winning. Access to power still continues to follow the money and name recognition. With some two hundred very rich ruling families still running the show through two big Party machines, only old political warhorses in their 70s need apply to be Presidential candidates. But for this weekend’s elections there are also new young faces, mostly products of US universities with distinguished careers, standing on real policies and in their 30s. But without the huge Party machines of the PDP, Peoples Democratic Party and the APC, All Progressives Congress, with their extensive national clientship networks, these new contenders can’t possibly win.
To win the Presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria’s electoral rules require more than 25% of the popular vote in at least 27 of the 36 states as well as an overall majority of the national vote. This has resulted in complex coalitions and agreements across the different regions, plus a ‘zoning’ principle that Muslim and Christians occupy the Presidency by turn. Nigeria has a little over 84 million registered voters, but since national censuses are rigged it is very hard to allocate any percentage of the vote to any particular region. It is generally assumed that there are more people in ‘the North’ but not necessarily a critical difference in overall numbers of voters from the South. The electoral system is designed to minimise the regionalism, ethnicity and religious differences that blighted Nigeria in the past and led to dreadful bloodshed.
Both the Presidential candidates this year are Muslim Northerners with Muhammad Buhari, who is seeking re-election relying on solid support in the North-West, and Atiku Abubakar, estimated to be worth $1.4 billion, with much support in the North East where he has been Governor in his home state of Adamawa. Buhari is vulnerable on a number of counts: his health and his failure to stop Boko Haram’s terrorism in the North-East which has created 1.8 million displaced people. Buhari disappointed expectations about his ability to curb corruption, his promise in his successful 2015 campaign for the Presidency. But he is the incumbent and the incumbent always won in the past (except for his own victory in 2015).
Boko Haram’s sensational kidnapping of the Chibok school girls made international headlines. The continued terrorism needs explanation. Corruption under Buhari is, and was, a causal factor in the failure to end the Boko Haram’s (BH) insurgency - spectacularly so under his Christian predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. Troops avoided contact with the enemy because they were outgunned: someone in the Federal Capital, Abuja, probably trousered the money allocated for up-to-date weaponry and vehicles. Officers in the air-force stationed in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital in the North-East with a population of over a million, depended on loans from friends in town because they weren’t paid. Recent Boko Haram attacks suggest that the proclaimed victory over them is premature. Urgent reform is needed to create an adequate counter-insurgency force to quell them. There have been some improvements. A few years ago only one of the four main roads into Maiduguri was not controlled by BH. And that was unsafe. Lack of security in the North-East will count against the incumbent.
With two Northern contenders, the ‘zoned’ Christian Vice-Presidential candidates have more importance. Yemi Osinbajo, Buhari’s running mate, should pull in a big Christian Pentecostal vote from the Redeemed Christian Church of God, a huge international mega-Church. Peter Obi, a Catholic and Papal Knight of the Order of St. Sylvester, is Atiku’s running mate as Vice-Presidential candidate, a former Governor of Anambra State in the South-East. Meanwhile former President and king-maker Olusegun Obasanjo has endorsed Atiku.
Northern Nigeria should not simply be described as Muslim. Since the 1960s there has been an ever growing presence of the Pentecostal Churches. Will the Pentecostals outvote the Catholics? This may be a question both the Presidential candidates are asking even though Presidential races do not offer a simple Muslim/Christian choice.
My guess would be that Buhari as incumbent with a good residue of loyalty from the seven Northern States, plus a solid Pentecostal vote pulled in behind Yemi Osinbajo will still have trouble warding off Atiku’s challenge. The PDP apparatus is still strong and Atiku can throw millions of Naira at his campaign whilst hoping for a national Catholic vote through his running mate. The question is, all things ethnic and regional being equal, does religion play a significant part? No-one knows. There are just too many variables to predict.
The problem is, if the Presidential election is closely run, the possibility of violence increases. One thing is sure, the time for the new, young, challengers, who might set Nigeria on a path to recovery, has not yet come. And another sure thing is that Nigeria, with its 200 million citizens, will somehow muddle through in the state of astonishing chaotic vigour to which they are accustomed.