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Nigeria's 2015 Presidential Election: Four Possible Scenarios

8 MINS READMar 23, 2015 | 09:06 GMT

The controversial bid by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to seek re-election has jeopardized Nigeria's political stability. The Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, which pushed back presidential and national assembly elections from Feb. 14 to March 28 because of security concerns, has complicated this picture. Gubernatorial and state houses elections set for Feb. 28 were similarly pushed to April 11. At present, Jonathan's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is in a dead heat with the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) led by retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who headed Nigeria's military government from 1983 to 1985. To forecast Nigeria's post-election political stability, and given that the race is too close to call (never mind that Stratfor does not call elections), it is helpful to consider four possible scenarios: an undisputed Jonathan re-election, a disputed Jonathan re-election, a disputed Buhari victory, and an undisputed Buhari election.

A Re-election Bid Challenges a Political Compromise

The PDP has governed Nigeria since the West African country transitioned to democratic from military rule in 1999. Since then, Nigeria's political stability has relied on a carefully negotiated power sharing understanding originally reached during the transition to democracy known as the zoning agreement. This deal was structured to ensure an inclusive system of government and deny the monopolization of power by narrow interest groups, the historical norm in Nigeria that had produced violent instability in the country. The agreement was designed to have political offices — and the government and economic resources they controlled — shared, or "zoned," among representatives from each of Nigeria's six regions (South-West, South-South, South-East, North-East, North-Central and North-West).

Under it, political offices would be held for a maximum of two electoral terms of four years each, after which those offices would be zoned to representatives from other regions of the country. A balance would be struck that ensures equal opportunities for government leadership and patronage between Nigeria's various interest groups, such as northerners and southerners, Muslims and Christians, and the country's ethnic blocs. This political solution has largely kept the peace between Nigeria's regions, and Nigeria is now a competitive, multiparty democracy, even though one party has long dominated at the national level. (Nigeria's main political battles are in federal elections, though state and local governments also see competition.)

The 2015 election cycle, however, has seen this consensus come under threat. In large part this is because of President Goodluck Jonathan's controversial decision to seek another full term, something seen as disrupting the zoning agreement. The Boko Haram insurgency in the country's North-East region and the low price of oil, which has hurt the hydrocarbon-dependent country's economy, have also contributed to the intensity of the presidential election.

Jonathan, originally the vice president since 2007, first became president in 2010 following the death of President Umaru Yaradua, who represented Nigeria's North-West region. The parties allocating offices according to the zoning agreement had not intended for Jonathan to become president. Instead, Jonathan had been intended to represent the South-South region in the Nigerian federal government as vice president, after which he was expected to step aside following Yaradua's two terms for other regions to take over the presidency and vice presidency.

Jonathan has now not only served out the presidencies intended for the North-West region for the 2007-2011 and 2011-2015 terms, but his supporters now argue he is eligible for another term since he was elected president only once, in 2011. But to his critics, Jonathan and his Niger Delta constituency have already usurped the presidency, and are threatening to upend the zoning agreement by seeking another four-year term. Dissatisfaction with Jonathan means the 2015 national elections are the first time Nigeria has a real possibility of a peaceful democratic transition from one party to another. Given how close the election between the PDP and the ADC is, there are four plausible electoral outcomes.

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1. An Uncontested Jonathan Re-election

In this unlikely scenario, Jonathan and the PDP manage to overcome criticism from the APC over perceptions of his threatening the zoning agreement and poor handling of the economy. The new Jonathan government would have to enact economic austerity so long as crude oil revenues are low. Counterinsurgency operations against Boko Haram would receive modest political support insufficient to defeat the militant group entirely. This scenario would result in essentially a status quo policy outcome.

Moving forward, were Jonathan to be handily re-elected but the National Assembly receive a divided vote, he would face difficulties in passing legislation, particularly on hot-button issues such as fuel subsidies. An austere spending plan would make Jonathan unpopular before too long. One potential result from an undisputed Jonathan win, however, would be a PDP initiative to try to draw APC members back. Success is not guaranteed, but the Jonathan administration's access to state resources would provide incentive.

2. A Disputed Jonathan Re-Election

In this plausible scenario, Jonathan's win is tight enough raise doubts about its validity, meaning he would have to govern in the face of considerable political opposition. Combined with an underperforming economy and the Boko Haram insurgency, Jonathan might not manage to complete a full four-year term, perhaps resigning or facing constitutional or extra-constitutional removal from office.

Because of insecurity as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, considerable parts of northeastern Nigeria might be unable to vote. Indeed, Stratfor observers report that the APC fears a meaningful number of pro-APC voters will be disenfranchised because of Boko Haram fighting. While the Nigerian military has secured a number of urban areas in northeastern Nigeria previously controlled by Boko Haram, it is unclear whether conditions will be ready to hold elections in this region. And even if voting does occur, the registration process ahead of the elections has already been significantly disrupted.

The confrontation between the opposition and the Jonathan administration and its supporters would rise to levels unseen since 1999 and could even become violent. Though civil war would not be likely, political gridlock would be.

How long Jonathan remains in office in such circumstances would probably depend on how the economy performs, which in turn depends on external factors, particularly the price of oil, and on how well the counterinsurgency campaign against Boko Haram goes. The counterinsurgency campaign has received improved political and military support in the final weeks leading up to the national elections. Whether sustaining a counterinsurgency will be a priority for Jonathan once the pressure of winning re-election is off, however, is unclear. 

3. A Disputed Buhari Victory

In this plausible scenario, northern Nigeria is pleased with the outcome, but concerns would arise regarding stability in the oil-producing Niger Delta region. While Buhari can expect significant voter support in northern Nigeria and in the South-West region, Jonathan has supporters in pockets throughout Nigeria, though his base is in the South-South and South-East. A Buhari victory would raise fears in the delta that could lead to violence if Jonathan supporters believed Buhari won via fraud.

Moreover, Jonathan supporters, especially in the delta region, would be ready to rebel if the region saw its patronage appointments curtailed. With scarce government resources to meet the demands of the southwest and the north, Buhari would be pressed to placate Niger Delta militants, who have become accustomed to influence in Abuja. In view of this risk, Buhari made Rivers state Gov. Rotimi Amaechi, the leader of Nigeria's largest oil and natural gas producing state, to be his campaign manager. Buhari would most likely give Amaechi a senior Cabinet position, a perch from which he could seek to pacify Niger Delta militants. Placating the South-South region would require similar appointments to government positions.

4. An Uncontested Buhari Election

In this unlikely scenario, Buhari would concentrate on reining in the Boko Haram insurgency, implement spending discipline and curtail the unaccounted spending that Cabinet ministers and government officials enjoyed under Jonathan. Buhari would also incorporate Niger Delta interests into his government and likely assign Amaechi to a Cabinet position, though the economy and security would be higher priorities.

Jonathan meanwhile would continue to find support. He would get support from his home South-South region, from those who benefited financially from his government, and from other ethnic groups who oppose Buhari, who is often seen as a sort of Hausa-Fulani military autocrat.

An Electoral Milestone

The National Assembly will likely be divided no matter which presidential candidate wins. Further, a significant number of representatives from each of the two major political parties can be expected to take office.

Given the traditional strength of the presidency versus the other two branches of government, however, the outcome of the March 28 election will be key to determining the country's stability. And the two main factors determining the next Nigerian administration's ability to govern will be the winning candidate's margin of victory and the state of the economy.

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