Written by Ionel Zamfir,
Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation, prepares to hold general elections on 16 February 2019 in an environment characterised by a struggling economy and a volatile security situation. After the first peaceful change of power following the 2015 elections, upcoming elections are expected to be tightly contested.
On 16 February, Nigerians will choose their president and the members of the National Assembly for the next four years. The president has significant powers in Nigeria’s presidential system, combining the functions of head of state and chief of the federal government. To win the presidency, a candidate needs to win the largest share of votes and at the same time obtain at least 25 % of the votes in at least two thirds of the federal states. The legislative body, the bicameral National Assembly, comprises a House of Representatives with 360 members and a Senate with 109 members (three from each state and one from Federal Capital Territory). Members of the National Assembly are elected through a system of first-past-the-post voting in single member constituencies. Two weeks later, on 2 March, Nigerians will vote again, this time in state elections for state governors and legislators.
This time, Nigeria seems better prepared to hold the elections on the planned date, unlike in 2015 when they had to be postponed due to the Boko Haram insurgency. Voter registration has improved: over 84 million voters have registered to vote in the 2019 elections, a 21 % increase compared to the 2014 electoral register. The widespread use of digital technologies is a central feature of the electoral process and, depending on their reliability, they can enhance or, conversely, undermine voters’ trust in the process. In 2015, biometric cards were used for voter identification for the first time, but with frequent technical failures. In the ongoing electoral process, voter registration and identification are based on biometric features – photograph and fingerprints, which are supposed to eliminate multiple registration and voting.
Some doubts linger as to the capacity of electoral and judicial bodies to play a fair and independent role. Following the re-run of the September 2018 Osun governorship election, opposition forces and other stakeholders have questioned the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) capacity and impartiality. The suspension of the Nigerian Chief of Justice in January 2019 by President Buhari also raised suspicions among civil society that judicial independence in the electoral process could be undermined. Fake news and disinformation, as well as hate speech, remain a major concern, given their potential to fuel electoral violence, a major issue in previous elections.
The electoral landscape is dominated by two major political forces. The governing party, All Progressives Congress (APC), was founded in February 2013 in anticipation of the 2015 elections. Left-leaning, it is affiliated, with a consultative status, to the Socialist International. In the run-up to the elections, the party has experienced infighting, with one faction splitting, as well as a number of defections to the opposition. All these moves were motivated by dissatisfaction with the record of the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari.
The opposition is organised in an electoral alliance, the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) that comprises over 40 political parties. In fact, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) dominates. Founded in August 1998 by a group opposed to the military ruler General Sani Abacha, the PDP had dominated Nigerian politics until the last elections, governing with an absolute majority in the legislative assembly between 1999 and 2015. The CUPP has decided to support a single candidate, namely the PDP candidate, Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president from 1999 to 2007 to then President Olusegun Obasanjo. Abubakar is a long-time insider in Nigeria’s ruling political circles, having switched sides from PDP to APC and back. He is more popular with voters in the south and south-west of the country.
Central issues in the electoral campaign
Despite the reform efforts promoted by incumbent President Buhari, the economy has failed to take off. In 2015, Buhari inherited an economy weakened by its over-reliance on oil (as the prices dipped), as well as by public debt and corruption. Nigeria’s economy experienced a period of sustained growth at 5 to 8 % per year from 2000 to 2014, as long as oil prices were high. Afterwards, the economy slowed down considerably, recording negative growth (-1.6 %) in 2016 and reverting to low growth in 2017 (0.8 %). The oil and gas sectors are extremely important for the economy as a source of foreign exchange and in terms of their contribution to GDP. Fuels accounted for 92 % of the country’s merchandise exports in 2017. Buhari’s administration has tried to implement a series of reforms such as fighting corruption, stimulating other economic sectors than oil (such as agriculture and solid minerals), improving tax collection and fiscal discipline, and investing heavily in infrastructure. However, the outcome has been mixed, with some macroeconomic indicators indicating an improvement such as a rise in foreign reserves; a current account surplus and a reduction in inflation. The opposition candidate has promised to cut federal spending and privatise the oil sector. He wishes to promote more investor-friendly policies, is considering an amnesty for corruption suspects to help recover billions of dollars deposited abroad, and wants to create a US$25 billion fund to support private sector investment in infrastructure.
With a population estimated at over 180 million in 2015, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and the seventh most populous country in the world. Nigeria’s population is growing very quickly and the country could become the third most populous on the planet with almost 800 million inhabitants by the end of this century, according to United Nations projections. Due to this special demographic dynamic, most of the population is very young and will remain so in the foreseeable future. This poses challenges for the economy, which needs to create jobs for the numerous young people joining the labour force each year. Indicators do not bode well in this respect. Nigeria’s unemployment rate increased from 18.8 % in the third quarter of 2017 to 23.1 % in in the third quarter of 2018 according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
The security situation remains very volatile in several regions, and critics point to Buhari’s record on security matters as problematic. After Buhari took power, Niger Delta insurgents intensified the country’s economic woes, disrupting oil extraction and transport. After the Buhari administration extended their reintegration programme, they agreed to a fragile peace, but the potential for a new crisis remains high and any troubles are considered a major threat to the country’s economy. In the south, Biafran separatism has again been gaining traction. In response, security forces have brutally cracked down on separatist leaders and protesters, possibly committing extrajudicial killings, according to Amnesty International. In the fight against Boko Haram, the Buhari administration’s record is also mixed. While the group has lost the control it held in 2014 over vast swathes of territory, it has preserved its capacity to conduct murderous attacks on the civilian population and the military outposts in the north-east. This reality contradicts Buhari’s claim that the terrorist group has been defeated. Another security issue that could have an impact on the electoral campaign is the intensifying conflict between Christian farmers and Muslim Fulani herders in the Middle Belt. Buhari, who comes also from the Fulani ethnic group, has being criticised for being biased towards the latter, as security forces have been unable or unwilling to stop most attacks against farmers.
EU democracy support for Nigeria
Against this very troubled background, the electoral stakes are high for Nigeria, but also for democracy in Africa in general. The European Union is committed to consolidate democratic progress in Nigeria. It will be the sixth consecutive time that the EU sends an Election Observation Mission (EOM) to observe Nigeria’s general elections, chaired by Maria Arena, (S&D, Belgium). Since the return of democracy to the country in 1998, EU observers have been present at every general election held from 1999 to 2019. The European Parliament has been involved in all EU EOMs to Nigeria.
The EU has also provided financial and technical assistance to electoral institutions and stakeholders since 1999. As an African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP) country, Nigeria is a beneficiary of the European Development Fund (EDF). According to the National Indicative Programme established with the country, 17.6 % (around €90 million) of planned EDF financing for the period 2014-2020 is reserved for rule of law, governance and democracy. The objective of EU support is to improve economic governance, consolidate the rule of law, enhance peace and security, reinforce democratic processes and help manage migration and mobility.
In 2017, the EU established a specific programme ‘Support to Democratic Governance in Nigeria‘ endowed with €26.5 million from the EDF, for a five year period. It was launched at the beginning of 2018, with the stated purpose of contributing to the consolidation of democracy, while taking inspiration from the recommendations of the 2015 EU EOM. It provides funding to ten organisations that implement various activities (trainings, seminars, capacity development, awareness raising etc.) in support of the Independent National Electoral Commission (€13 million), Nigeria’s National Assembly (€3 million), political parties (€2.7 million), media (€2.6 million) and civil society organisations (€3 million).
The European Parliament is strongly committed to reinforcing electoral processes and democratic institutions and stakeholders in the country. The Parliament’s Democracy Support and Election Coordination Group (DEG) oversees and manages the activities carried out with Nigerian partners. Nigeria was added to the DEG list of priority countries in 2017. Under this framework, a comprehensive programme of capacity-building activities has been developed and implemented with the National Assembly of Nigeria. These have included several joint seminars between Nigerian parliamentarians and EP Members, a fact finding mission to Abuja, as well as training for the staff of the Nigerian parliament.