Nigeria's Presidential Election What the Global Media Miss

Africa Digest

Global media commentary on Nigeria’s recently concluded elections often mentions that the country is close to being equally divided between Muslims and Christians, implying that it was an election that pitted one religion against the other. Yet, Nigeria is a society that demonstrates great diversity among both Christians and Muslims. Allan Christelow maintains that the global media, which simply focus on the winner, needs to recognise the challenges for the winner shown in the statistics

On March 28, Nigerians entered an exquisite ordeal – the first presidential election where it seemed that either candidate had a good chance to win. They dressed up in colourful clothes. Civil servants and politicians living in the capital city of Abuja travelled to their home towns where they could meet their extended family as well as vote. But they had to worry about attacks by terrorists or youth gangs. And they had to hope that the complex, new biometric machines would successfully read their new, permanent voter cards.

Beyond the Headlines

Global media commentary on these elections often mentions that Nigeria is close to equally divided between Muslims and Christians, implying that this was an election that pitted one religion against the other. Yet, Nigeria is a society that demonstrates that there can be great diversity among both Christians and Muslims.

The voters chose not just a president, but also a vice president. Nigerians are well aware of the importance of that second slot, for they can remember that Goodluck Jonathan was elected as vice president in 2007. Then, in 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua entered a prolonged health crisis, and finally died.

Jonathan succeeded him, and then won the next election in 2011 against Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general, who had briefly served as Nigeria’s military ruler in 1984-86, then run for president and lost in 2003 and 2007. Nigeria had initially made the transition to elected rule in 1999, with regulations stipulating that the presidential candidate and his running mate should be from different regions.

Former President Jonathan, candidate of the People’s Democratic Party is a Christian from Bayelsa state in the southeast, close to the Niger Delta, where Nigeria’s oil is located. His vice president since 2011, Namadi Sambo, had been governor of Kaduna state, an area where Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north intersects with the mainly Christian south.

Kaduna, and nearby areas of central Nigeria, had been the site of violent clashes between Muslims and Christians after Buhari’s defeat in the 2011 election. But since then, there have been important efforts to build understanding between Muslims and Christians in this area and curtail violence. Yet, for the global media, conflict resolution is far less interesting than outbreaks of violence.

Buhari is the candidate of the All Progressives Congress, a new party formed in the wake of the 2011 election. He is from Katsina state in Nigeria’s far north, and a member of the Fulani, the Muslim group who supported the building of an Islamic state in north central and north-western Nigeria in the early 19th century. Descendants of that movement’s leaders still serve as traditional rulers in the Muslim north, notably Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar, the Sultan of Sokoto. He is a strong supporter of modern education and of interfaith dialogue – as illustrated by the fact that he was invited to speak on this topic at Harvard Divinity School in 2011. Buhari’s vice presidential candidate, Yemi Osinbajo, is a lawyer and a Pentecostal Christian from Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

Analysing the North’s Security Crisis

A major problem for Jonathan has been the Boko Haram rebellion in the northeast. Since 2009, the rebellion led by this Islamic movement has spun out of control. These rebels have only been pushed back since early March of this year with help from the armies of neighbouring countries, especially Chad. And it has needed the help of security contractors based in South Africa, who have also contributed to efforts at maintaining security in the Niger Delta.

Neither Buhari nor Jonathan produced an effective analysis of the problems underlying the security crisis in the north, which include the poor performance of the Nigerian armed forces. This stems not only from poor funding and lack of equipment, but also from the difficulties facing the army of a nation made up of hundreds of different ethnic groups fighting rebels who come mainly from one group, in this case the Kanuri. Inciting large scale defections, a key step towards defeating the rebels, requires local cultural skills. Neither candidate presented an effective understanding of the geopolitical and socio-economic problems underlying the rebellion, and ways to address these problems.

The Road Ahead

Nigeria has the largest population and the largest economy in Africa, so one might expect it to play a dynamic role in the continent’s politics. But a recent incident highlighted Jonathan’s shortcomings in this area. Nigerian government sources proclaimed that he had spoken at length by phone to Morocco’s King Muhammad VI, yet the Moroccan government denied this saying that the king had rejected Jonathan’s request for a discussion. Morocco then withdrew its ambassador.

But Buhari seems to have made no comment on this. When he was president in 1984, Nigeria recognised the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic set up as the government of what had been the Spanish controlled Western Sahara. But the territory was taken over by Morocco, and this remains a contentious issue. Buhari also took an aggressive stance against an intrusion by Chad into north-eastern Nigeria when he was president. Given Chad’s key role in that area today, memories of the earlier clash could bring trouble.

The most serious problem facing Nigeria today is widespread poverty and ineffective government services in areas such as healthcare and education, above all in the predominantly Muslim north. Both candidates expressed concern for these problems, but neither presented an effective strategy to deal with them. The sharp decline of revenues from oil exports has made these problems more difficult to address.

In the area of healthcare, Nigeria has had one remarkable success recently, with the prevention of the spread of the Ebola virus after it was brought into the country from the epidemic’s centre in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, to the west of Nigeria. This showed how Nigerians, led by their medical professionals, could meet a serious challenge. Another area where they have had some success has been in developing a way to surgically repair the damage caused by fistula, a problem affecting young women married at an early age when they bear a child before being physically mature enough to do so.

Contributions by Civil Society

There is no surgical solution for young men who have been recruited into violent gangs such as Boko Haram in the northeast, or the Bakasi boys in the Niger Delta, but it may be possible to develop ways to bring them back into mainstream society through counselling and job training. Federal and state governments may have limited skill in this area, but voluntary organisations can prove effective. They can also be useful in addressing the larger problem of working with marginalised youth; both male and female, to provide them with the skills and resources needed to avoid becoming a child bride or a gang thug. The federal government can provide financial assistance in this area.

Sterling Contribution by the INEC

Technical skills have played a pivotal role in building the Independent National Election Commission, or INEC, which has been instrumental in developing the technology of electronic biometric tests to ensure that the person registered to vote is in fact the person voting. But the new technology introduced by the INEC had its glitches. One of their machines failed to confirm the identity of then President Goodluck Jonathan. Perhaps this was because he was smiling so brightly knowing that even if he lost the election he could return peacefully to his hometown and take up fishing from a boat driven by solar power!

The INEC successfully assisted in the vote counting process, and by March 31 it became clear that Buhari had won the election. The vote count helps to show both the challenges that Nigeria faces, and also its potential for overcoming the challenges. A dramatic aspect of the vote count is the small number of votes for Buhari in the southeast (in several states less than 5 percent), and his overwhelming majority in the far north (80 percent or more). But the central states and the southwest show a closer balance. They illustrate Nigeria’s potential for dialogue between religious and ethnic groups. The global media simply focus on the winner. They need to recognise the challenges for the winner shown in the statistics.

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Author

Allan Christelow

Allan Christelow is an emeritus professor of history at Idaho State University and a historian whose research has focused on Islamic legal institutions and civil society organisations. He taught at Bayero University in Kano from 1978 to 1983.

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