Nigerians went to the polls on February 23 and reelected their president, Muhammadu Buhari. The outcome was uncertain going into election day as Buhari was in a close race with his main rival, Atiku Abubakar, who was just one of more than 70 candidates vying for Nigeria’s top office. The results released show Buhari winning 15.1 million votes, or 55 percent of ballots cast, while Abubakar received 11.2 million with 41 percent of the vote. Turnout was an extremely low 35.6 percent which continued the downward trend of recent election turnout. This is due do to several reasons which include major failures in organizing the election, the quality of the main candidates themselves, and fears of violence.
Originally, the general election was scheduled for February 16, but just hours before the polls were scheduled to open, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) postponed the election for another week. Despite having plenty of financing and years to prepare—while denying for months there would be any problems holding the election—the INEC announced it was not ready for voting to begin. However, the failure to hold the election on time was not seen by observers as a method to rig the election for either Buhari or Abubakar, but it was seen instead as a result of pure INEC incompetence. Election delays have happened before in Nigeria, even last-minute ones. In 2011 the INEC announced at noon on election day it was postponing that election for a week.
These last-minute postponements have a significant negative effect on Nigerian elections. Voting in Nigeria often requires citizens to travel vast distances to get to their assigned polling stations. Many cannot afford to travel the distances required. Those who can, often take days out of their schedules to accommodate their participation in the election. When an election gets delayed by a week only hours before hand, it forces many Nigerians to return home—often having used up all their resources they allocated to cast their vote. Many are unable to make the journey again. Those who can return often do not because they become dejected over the process.
Dejection is not always over the participation process, it also emanates from the low quality of the candidates. That was certainly the case for this election. Muhammadu Buhari was a very flawed incumbent. His tenure as president has been defined by ill-health, an economic downturn with a slow recovery, an inability to successfully tackle corruption, and a languishing battle with Boko Haram. According to the Centre for Democracy and Development, Buhari has achieved just seven of the 222 campaign promises he made when running in 2015. With such a miserable record, voters were very much looking for someone to replace him with.
Buhari’s main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, is an oil service billionaire who is widely perceived as corrupt even though he has never been charged with a crime. He ran on a slogan of “Let’s Get Nigerians Working Again.” The proposals he made during the campaign often lacked detail, and his desire to privatize state-owned firms came across to many as a ploy to enrich his cronies. For voters wanting to replace Buhari, Abubakar had his own significant baggage.
Voters in Nigeria have a history of having to face election violence and this election was not much different. Boko Haram sent its election day message by setting off gunfire and a series of explosions on the outskirts of its founding city of Maiduguri. Muhammadu Buhari, a former major general, initially had some success in combating Boko Haram after taking office in 2015 but fighting soon stagnated and Boko Haram has since been gaining strength. Election day violence claimed at least 39 lives this time around.
Atiku Abubakar has challenged the election results declaring that it was a “sham election” and said that the results in some Nigerian states were a “statistical impossibility.” Certainly, the election had major shortcomings, but the African Union said the, “overall political climate remained largely peaceful and conducive for the conducting of credible elections.” In the past Abubakar said he would accept the official results, yet it remains to be seen if he keeps his word. Any challenge to change the outcome of the election will likely end in failure and Buhari will remain the winner.
Buhari will have to focus on three major overarching issues in his second term. They are security, the economy, and corruption. Besides fighting with Boko Haram, which has caused 30,000 deaths and the internal displacement of around 2 million refugees, there are clashes between farmers and herders in the country’s Middle Belt. Those clashes have led to even more deaths than those attributed to fighting with Boko Haram. There is also a low-level insurgency in the oil producing regions of the country that threatens production. Oil is the lifeblood of the Nigerian economy. Finally, a surge of nonpolitical kidnappings is further plaguing the country.
The oil-based economy is still struggling from the 2008 global recession and the collapse of oil prices. During Buhari’s first term Nigeria became the country with the largest population living in extreme poverty in the world—that is 90 million Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day. Unemployment has risen over the past four years from 8.2 percent to 23.1 percent. Drought, expanding deserts, and flooding have also taken their economic toll and are fueling the conflict between farmers and herders competing for arable land in the Middle Belt.
And then there is corruption. Nigeria’s political system is designed to enrich elites, and politics is the means by which they gain access to the country’s oil wealth. Government firms receive billions in funding without producing much of anything. There is no better example than the Ajaokuta Steel Company near Lokoja. It has received $8 billion from the government without producing a single product. Meanwhile, Ajaokuta mysteriously has over 10,000 pensioners on its records. It has built 4,000 homes for its workers but they are all occupied by retirees. Last year the public was galvanized by videos released of a major politician receiving bribes.
Corruption has crippled the Nigerian government and economy.
Given how dismal Muhammadu Buhari’s performance was in his first term, Nigerians are justified if they do not hold much hope for serious progress on security, a more fundamentally sound economy, and corruption in his second term. But the Nigerian people did, no matter by how small a voter turnout, put their faith in their president to lead for another term. It would be wise for Buhari to use that faith as inspiration to do better. A silver lining from this election is that Nigeria is still beholden to their young yet fragile democratic process to select its leaders—no matter how tentatively.