What's at Stake in Nigeria's Upcoming Election

5 MINS READFeb 15, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
A warning poster is shown in Lagos, Nigeria, ahead of presidential and legislative elections on Feb. 16.

A warning poster is shown in Lagos, Nigeria, ahead of general elections on Feb. 16. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari is expected to be in a close race with his top challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, for the presidency.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.
The Big Picture

Nigeria is an African giant, harnessing the biggest economy and nearly twice as many people as the next largest country on the continent. However, Nigeria also grapples with immense internal challenges that often constrain its ability to act more forcefully beyond its borders. And several of these challenges will be on display during the country's next presidential election on Feb. 16.

Editor's Note: The Nigerian election commission has ordered general elections that had been scheduled for Feb. 16 to be delayed until Feb. 23.

What's Happening

Nigerians will head to the polls on Feb. 16 to elect their next president. Among the raft of opposition presidential candidates running against incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, Atiku Abubakar of the powerful People's Democratic Party (PDP) has emerged as Buhari's main challenger.

Both men hail from Nigeria's northern region, and each has run for the presidency several times. But otherwise, the candidates have little in common, which will either play in their favor or to their detriment in their respective bids for the office. When looking at election dynamics, these key differences include:

  • Buhari's incumbency: Elected in 2015, Buhari and his APC party have the advantages of incumbency on their side, including — most notably — greater access to patronage to fund his campaign. However, Nigeria's economic woes over the past several years will also weigh heavily on Buhari's reelection efforts.
  • Buhari's medical trips: For years, Buhari has suffered from an undisclosed medical condition, requiring him to periodically take trips to London for treatment. This has raised concerns at home about who is governing the country while he's away, often for weeks at a time.
  • Abubakar's political power: Up until 2015, Abubakar's PDP was the dominant party at the federal and state levels, and thus still retains much of the grassroots election machine needed to give a ruling party a run for its money.
  • Buhari's waning support: In the last presidential election in 2015, then-incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP was running for what was perceived to be a controversial third term. This controversy created a wave of anti-PDP support that Buhari rode all the way to victory. But years later, the controversy has become a distant memory for many Nigerian voters, some of whom have started to defect back to the PDP.
  • Abubakar's corruption ties: Buhari has focused much of his agenda on clamping down on government corruption, a popular issue among the Nigerian electorate. And while many of his anti-corruption efforts have struggled to gain traction, Buhari is still generally viewed as a non-corrupt leader. Abubakar, on the other hand, has been accused of corrupt practices both at home and abroad over the many years he's been in the public eye.

Why It Matters 

Nigeria is home to the largest population and economy in Africa, with the oil reserves in its Niger Delta region accounting for about 85 percent of its exports. In recent decades, the country has made great strides toward consolidating its multiparty democracy. However, this month's presidential election will serve as a significant test to these gains by threatening the fragile status quo that has since maintained the country's relative stability. 

A map of security threats in Nigeria.

The conduct and outcome of the contest will, therefore, weigh heavily on the country and beyond. And depending on what happens after the votes are tallied, it could also increase the likelihood of additional protests and violence across Nigeria.

What to Watch For

Instability and escalating conflict can easily occur following Nigeria's election — especially if the legitimacy of the results is called into question, as evidenced by the aftermath of the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Smaller political figures have already made public claims that Buhari and his ruling APC party are "rigging" the election in key parts of the country. And while there's no evidence to support these statements, such claims can still heighten tensions and make outbreaks of protests and violence more likely.

In addition, recent developments involving Nigeria's Supreme Court could provoke further unrest should the election produce a close or controversial outcome. In January, Buhari suspended Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen over multiple allegations of corruption-related crimes. Coming just weeks ahead of the Feb. 16 election, the suspension sparked controversy, since the chief justice would play a critical role in the event that the election outcome falls into the hands of the Supreme Court.

Adding fuel to the fire, Onnoghen also hails from the oil-rich Niger Delta region, an area some view as hostile to Buhari's reelection efforts. So far, a local militant group has threatened attacks on oil infrastructure in the region if Buhari allows Onnoghen's trial to proceed. Against this backdrop, the most dangerous scenario would be if Buhari won a narrow victory that is challenged by the court he just altered, as it would confirm his opponents' fears that he and his allies have forced through an invalid election result.

The uncertainty surrounding Nigeria's upcoming election has created opportunities for brewing conflicts across the country to flare up and threaten its burgeoning democracy, oil-dependent economy and regional security. However, the severity of these threats will depend less on who wins the presidency, but on how they win it.

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