What to Expect from Nigeria's Presidential Election

6 MINS READNov 12, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
Atiku Abubakar, the candidate from the resurgent People's Democratic Party, hopes to unseat President Muhammadu Buhari, whose health concerns are a factor for Nigerian voters.

Supporters of former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar celebrate his nomination to represent the People's Democratic Party in February's presidential election. 

  • The opposition People's Democratic Party has rebuilt itself since its defeat in 2015 and will pose a significant challenge to President Muhammadu Buhari and his ruling All Progressives Congress.
  • Despite Buhari's best effort to institutionalize his anti-corruption efforts, his defeat could cause the issue to become a lower priority.
  • Militants in Nigeria's northeast and the oil-rich southeast may attempt to exploit insecurity for personal gain ahead of the election.

Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Annual Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming year.

Nigeria is barreling toward its next presidential election. On Feb. 16, 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari will appear at the top of the ticket for his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party. As the election approaches, lingering concerns about Buhari's health and handling of the economy are good news for Atiku Abubakar, the president's primary challenger and a former vice president, who will be making his fourth effort to enter the presidential office.

What's at Stake

The election will be another test of the democratic gains Nigeria has made since it returned to multiparty democracy in 1999. More than that, it will test Buhari's coalition now that it is no longer the rising political movement that it was during elections in 2015. At the time, many Nigerians viewed President Goodluck Jonathan's controversial bid for re-election as an attempt to sidestep term limits because he had already served a partial term after his predecessor's death before winning another full term in office. This perception fueled a movement against Jonathan and his ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) — which had been the dominant political force at the federal level since 1999 — that Buhari rode to victory.

The Big Picture

Home to the continent's largest population and economy, Nigeria is an African behemoth. But before it can flex its muscle across West Africa and beyond, the country must get a handle on its internal challenges. The fast-approaching elections in February 2019 will test the country's democratic traditions and may even affect its course.

Now, Jonathan is a fading political memory, and Buhari must defend his coalition against an increasingly resurgent PDP. Signs of trouble for Buhari's APC have been growing in recent months, and dozens of its members — including Abubakar and other leading lawmakers — have jumped ship to rejoin the PDP. These defections have weakened Buhari's party, but loyalties shift often in Nigeria's fluid political environment, and the president's coalition is by no means a spent force. Unlike many elections that end predictably, Nigeria's will be competitive as the two forces battle it out.

Potential Policy Implications

The potentially close contest means that some possible policy changes need to be examined. First, both candidates hail from Nigeria's north — Buhari is from Katsina state in the central north and Abubakar is from Adamawa state in the northeast — so, regardless of which party wins, the more populous north will retain control over the lucrative energy sector in the south. This control is key to continuing to feed the northern patronage networks that have been nourished since Buhari defeated Jonathan, a southerner, in 2015.

While the north's control over the energy sector will likely remain unchanged, an Abubakar victory could yield some policy changes in other areas — including the fight against corruption. Since coming into office, Buhari has focused heavily on fulfilling his campaign promise to clamp down on corruption by going after several high-profile figures from the previous administration who were accused of mass resource theft, among other crimes. Despite his almost singular focus on the matter — he has been arguably obsessed with the issue since his brief time as a military dictator in the 1980s — Buhari has been largely unable to see his vision realized due to severe institutional and cultural constraints.

This pervasive culture of corruption means that although any reduced focus on the issue could have a negative impact on the government, it would not represent a broad departure from the norm.

An Abubakar presidency could bring a departure from Buhari's laser focus on corruption (Abubakar became entangled in a U.S. anti-corruption investigation over a decade ago). But everyday Nigerians as well as local and foreign businesses will still have to grapple with everything from police demanding bribes to wealthy elites inserting themselves into business deals to gain a financial edge. This pervasive culture of crime means that although any reduced focus on the issue could have a negative impact on the government — perhaps, by causing the mismanagement of various ministries — it would not represent a broad departure from the norm.

Mastery Over Militants

Militancy and politics often go hand in hand in Nigeria, and the upcoming election is no exception. The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), once known as Boko Haram, has shown signs of a partial resurgence in the Lake Chad region during 2018. The uptick in activity has seemingly been driven by a change in the group's tactics, including the use of multiple vehicles against often surprised and ill-prepared Nigerian military positions. Going into 2019, any further increase in ISWAP activity — such as successful attacks against the military and hardened targets such as forts — or expansion of the group's area of operations may benefit Buhari, a former general who is seen as strong on security. However, there are currently no signs that ISWAP has the means to accomplish such feats. The group will more likely struggle to conduct attacks outside the northeast due to supply line restrictions and an improved military strategy for countering the ISWAP tactical shift.

A map shows the major ethnic areas of Nigeria as well as the country's energy infrastructure.

Militancy in Nigeria's oil-rich south, on the other hand, has been a different story. Groups that previously threatened and occasionally carried out attacks on oil installations in 2016 and 2017 have been dormant for many months. This silence is likely the result of several factors, including government's decision to devote more resources to the region after it became flush with cash thanks to higher crude oil prices. The flow of oil money has enabled the government to effectively buy off former militants through an amnesty program designed to provide them with prospects they previously lacked. This approach has paid off handsomely for Abuja and alleviated some of the militancy issues that harmed Nigeria's bottom line. As elections approach, militant groups will work to ensure that they are not forgotten and that the money continues to flow.

It remains unlikely that Buhari will seek to drastically change the status quo if he is re-elected. As it stands, several militant groups in the region have even endorsed him, citing the acceptable deal they struck with Abuja. Likewise, an Abubakar victory would be unlikely to jeopardize these deals by cutting benefits for militants as Buhari did in 2016 — a decision that was at least partially driven by plunging oil profits. For now, both candidates seem to view stability in the oil region as worth the price. And with oil prices likely to remain at their current level or slightly higher, militant groups may have free rein to exploit any insecurity for their personal gain. Regardless of who wins the election, the new leader will need to address the same problems of militancy and corruption that previous presidents faced.

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