Consequences of the 2019 Nigerian Presidential Election

Peter Wineman, Lynx Fellow

With the international community watching, the 2019 Nigerian Presidential Election ended with a re-election victory for the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari who was challenged by Atiku Abubakar, accused of widespread voter fraud and who has promised to dispute the results. Regardless of the outcome, this year’s election also highlighted the array of challenges facing Nigeria and offered perspective on what may be to come in the near future for Africa’s most populous democracy. Once again, voter fraud, election related violence and the persistence of corruption continued to overshadow Nigeria’s democratic elections. Looking forward, the resurgence of Boko Haram, economic stagnation tied to rampant corruption, along with conflicts between religious, ethnic and tribal groups will continue to impact the security situation in Nigeria and the greater West African region. 

Similar to the 2015 campaign in which Buhari was first elected, the 2019 elections have centered on Boko Haram and the government’s ability or inability to deter attacks by the terrorist group. To Buhari’s credit there is consensus that over the last three years “[Boko Haram’s] activities have been largely brought under control” [5]. Writing for the BBC, Christopher Giles using data from Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) found that “From a peak in 2015, of more than 5,000 [deaths attributed to Boko Haram] had fallen significantly to below 1,000 a year for the past three years” [6]. This followed a military campaign by the Nigerian government in 2015 leading to the recapture of territory previously held by Boko Haram. However despite Buhari’s claims, Boko Haram has not been defeated and recent attacks in 2019 demonstrate their continued ability to carry out attacks. Additionally, the loss of territory has led Boko Haram to shift their strategy away from direct military confrontation with Nigerian and international security forces, turning instead to kidnapping and suicide bombing [7] which have both experienced an increase over the last three years.  

            For the majority of the Nigerian population, economic stagnation continued to be the top concern going forward. Recent improvements in the economy stand in contrast to the situation during Buhari’s first term in 2015 which was “marked by a crash in global oil prices that spun Nigeria’s heavily crude-dependent economy into a rare recession, from which it only recovered in 2017 [1]. During his first term, Buhari “did make notable moves toward improving the economy” [2]. Yet any improvement in combating inflation and helping lead Nigeria out of its recent recession have not been felt by much of the population, whom in 2017 “passed India as the nation with the most people living in extreme poverty”[3]. Unfortunately, as the seventh most populous country in the world endemic poverty and economic inequality continue to impact both security and opportunity in Nigeria. Directly tied to economic stagnation, is high levels of corruption that have persisted before, during and will continue into Buhari’s second term, posing a serious problem to Nigerian economic growth. Both Abubakar and Buhari were accused of corruption during the election and Buhari’s victory will ensure that the political party in power continues to use oil revenues and state budgets to improve its position and reward loyal supporters in a system of patronage not unique to Nigeria. This system will continue and is endogenous to ethnically and tribally focused societies in which allegiance to tribe are prioritized over national affiliation. 

            Linked to corruption and patronage, ethnic divisions within Nigerian society represent a growing concern for security and economic stability in the country and region. Discussing the connections between ethnicity and economy to conflict, Udo Jude Ilo, Ier Jonathan-Ichaver and Yemi Adamolekun outlined the increasingly violent dispute between Nigeria’s cattle herders and farmers within Nigeria’s fertile Middle Belt. Overshadowed in the last decade by Boko Haram, “clashes between the two groups have killed more than 10,000 people in the last decade, almost 4,000 of them in the last two years alone” [8] Unfortunately, political response to this conflict has been divisive along party lines, in which “politicians are using the conflict to exploit social divisions” [9] The conflict is shrouded by economic, ethnic, religious and political lines. With the herders being largely Northern Fulani and Muslim while the farmers tend to be Christian and from an array of ethnic minority groups. This divide has led many to accuse President Buhari, a Muslim Fulani of ignoring at best and directly aiding at worst the largely Muslim herders in the conflict. Discussing the government’s failure, a 2018 report on the violence by Amnesty International said they were “deeply concerned that the government of Nigeria has failed to comply with its obligation to exercise due diligence, failing both to address the underlying causes of the violence between herders and villagers…and to stop violence when it did occur” [10]. To make matters worse, along with their strategic pivot to kidnapping and suicide bombing, there is evidence to suggest that Boko Haram has taken a greater stake in the conflict often siding with more extreme interests within Fulani Muslim groups.

            The Middle Belt conflict offers a compelling preview for the future of conflict and violence in Nigeria and the greater region in which political, religious, economic and ethnic factors combine to create an incredibly complex situation made worse by the growing impact of climate change. In the last decade alone, climate change was responsible for increased “desertification, which has diminished Nigeria’s supply of water and arable land while population growth has increased the demand for them” [11]. For Buhari’s second term, creating an equitable stake in the economic and political future of Nigeria for all its ethnic groups is required if there is to be any hope for an end to the growing conflict in the Middle Belt and overall alleviation of extreme poverty in the country as a whole. Unfortunately, the 2019 Presidential Election offered little hope for any change of the political status quo in which the ruling party will continue to exploit its political power in order to maintain and extend its control over the Nigerian economy and political system. This will come at the expense of the population, who will continue to suffer from extreme poverty as well as ethnic, tribal and extremist violence. 

Sources: 

[1, 3]https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/world/africa/nigeria-postpones-election.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/world/africa/nigeria-elections-buhari-abubakar.html

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/16/world/africa/nigeria-election-delayed.html

[5, 6, 7] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47047399

[8, 9, 11] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/nigeria/2019-01-23/deadliest-conflict-youve-never-heard

[10] https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr44/9503/2018/en/