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The Conflict With Boko Haram Could Derail Nigeria's 2015 Presidential Election

Election officials say more than a million voters in the Nigeria's besieged northeast may not be able to cast ballots in the elections scheduled for February.
December 18, 2014, 10:10am
Photo by AP/Sunday Alamba

Nigerian election officials say more than a million voters in the country's besieged northeast may not be able to cast ballots in the presidential elections scheduled for February — a pivotal vote that observers say already has the potential for violence.

Nigeria's 2010 Electoral Act says citizens can only vote in the constituency where they are registered, meaning people displaced by the ongoing conflict with the Sunni extremist group Boko Haram will not be able to cast ballots without a change in federal law.

"Unless the act is amended, the IDP (internally displaced person) issue could expose the election to legal challenges by the losing party," Kayode Idowu, spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission, said Monday.

Nigeria's National Assembly, which could rewrite the law, will not meet again until January, only a month before the vote. The election is expected to be the closest contest since Nigeria ended military rule in 1999.

Several of Nigeria's largest opposition parties consolidated into the All Progressives Congress in 2013, setting the stage for a two-horse race that pits former military leader Muhammadu Buhari against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan of the People's Democratic Party. Buhari, a Muslim, was chosen last week by the APC in a primary election. On Wednesday, Buhari added Yemi Osinbajo — a lawyer and Christian pastor from Nigeria's south — to his ticket as the APC's vice-presidential candidate. Jonathan, who is from the Niger Delta region, is Christian.

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Three northern states — Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe — are currently under a state of emergency due to fighting with Boko Haram, which has battled government forces and targeted civilians since 2009. The Nigerian government announced a ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram in October, but militant leader Abubakar Shekau denied the existence of a truce the following month. Human Rights Watch estimates that Boko Haram killed more than 2,000 civilians in just the first six months of 2014.

Militant attacks have increased during the state of emergency, and some members of the opposition have suggested that Jonathan has prolonged taking decisive action in the northeast in order to make it more difficult for predominantly APC voters to cast their ballots.

Omolade Adunbi, a professor of African studies at the University of Michigan, said a combination of government incompetence and apathy for the north is likely to blame for the situation.

"Jonathan didn't take the fight against Boko Haram seriously because the area was controlled by the opposition party, but as it turns out things are not working the way he wanted to, particularly with the Chibok girls," Adunbi told VICE News, referring to more than 200 young women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in April. Most of the girls are still missing, and the mass abduction has affected Jonathan's popularity.

Many residents in the area under the state of emergency have fled to Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and surrounding areas. Even for those who haven't fled, it's unclear how safe the polls would be, and the disarray caused by disrupted polling could result in a legal crisis. In order to be elected president, a candidate must win 25 percent of the votes in at least two-thirds of Nigeria's 36 states.

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The National Assembly has also yet to take up proposed amendments to the Electoral Act that would establish a system for dealing with violent or non-violent electoral offenses. In a November report, the International Crisis Group said it was not clear that those provisions would be passed "in time to have a meaningful impact on the polls."

With so much unresolved only two months prior to the vote, distrust of the government in Abuja is growing among many Nigerians and exacerbating splits between the largely Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

"The country is more polarized than we've seen it in many years," Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigeria analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VICE News. "There are tensions along regional and religious lines. Add that to the fact that you have only two political parties contesting for the big prize, and all of this in a very volatile security environment, it suggests that the election could have a high risk of violence around it."

Jonathan's power base is Nigeria's Delta region, home to the country's vast petroleum reserves. Obasi said it appears both sides in the contest might only be satisfied with victory.

"People in the Delta cannot contemplate Jonathan not winning, and in the far north they cannot contemplate Jonathan continuing for the next four years," he said. "Whichever way the election goes, you can expect turbulence immediately after."

In 2011, Jonathan defeated Buhari, who was then running as a candidate for the Congress for Progressive Change. The outcome was followed by outbursts of violence in northern states that killed at least 800 people, according to Human Rights Watch. Obisi said the bloodshed could be repeated in 2015 if Buhari loses again.

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Regardless of the outcome, the winner of Nigeria's 2015 election will inherit a budget bludgeoned by oil prices that have plummeted by nearly half since June. The government in Abuja relies on oil sales for roughly 70 percent of its income.

"If Buhari wins, you can expect to see him become highly unpopular within a few months if the price of oil continues to slide," Adunbi said. "He's not going to be able to find enough resources to function."

Nigeria said Wednesday that it would have to trim its anticipated 2015 budget by 8 percent, a move that would likely strain state services and cut the wages of civil servants. Those sharp retrenchments are based on global oil prices of $65 a barrel, $7 higher more than the going rate Wednesday.

Members of Nigeria's two largest oil workers unions went on strike this week, demanding the government pass a bill overhauling the industry. Though observers point out the move comes at a time of high leverage directly before the election, disruptions of the oil sector could loom large in the event of a Buhari win.

"Former militant leaders that we spoke with are threatening that if Jonathan loses, then first of all they would cripple the oil industry and then disrupt the flow of oil into the northern parts of the country," Obasi said.

But Jonathan's support in the Delta is by no means universally guaranteed. Adunbi says that while Jonathan established a patronage system — not unique to Nigeria or Africa — to keep former Delta rebel leaders by his side, the population of the region lacks access to sufficient infrastructure, a shortcoming that many lay squarely at Jonathan's feet.

Adunbi said the notion that the election will splinter the country along regional and religious lines does a disservice to voters. Not only did Buhari, the Muslim candidate, choose a Christian as his running mate, Jonathan's current vice-president is a Muslim from the north. Muslims also hold a number of high-ranking positions in the military under Jonathan, including the spot of Defense Minister.

"When we think about the north-south divide we take a lot of things for granted, that individuals do not have the capacity to think about what the future holds for them," Adunbi said. "None of the regions are monolithic."

_Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: _@samueloakford