Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Elections have ceased to mean much in Nigeria

In last month's poll, voters were asked to choose between two septuagenarian political insiders, both incapable of bringing desperately needed change

Nigerian voters queue to cast their votes at Shagari Health Unit polling station in Yola, Adamawa State, last month. AFP
Nigerian voters queue to cast their votes at Shagari Health Unit polling station in Yola, Adamawa State, last month. AFP

In October 2018, a video of the governor of Kano state unleashed a storm of outrage in Nigeria. The footage showed Abdullahi Umar Ganduje being handed wads of cash, bound Mafia-style with rubber bands, allegedly by a government contractor.

Eyes turned to Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s frail president, who rode an anti-corruption wave to power in 2015. So integral is this issue to his electoral platform that Mr Buhari’s supporters wave boomsticks at rallies, symbolic of his pledge to sweep to the nation’s institutions clean. But the president didn’t take action against Kano's governor. Far from it. Within weeks, he was out campaigning alongside Mr Ganduje and publicly endorsing him for re-election.

It showed how little had changed during his first term as leader of Africa’s most populous nation, where politics is a business – and a lucrative one at that.

Last Wednesday, Mr Buhari won a second term in office, defeating his main rival, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) by more than three million votes. Mr Abubakar – known in Nigeria simply as Atiku – declared the election a “sham” and vowed to challenge the result in court.

But, given how fair, free and peaceful this election appeared to be – at least, by Nigerian standards – that is unlikely to alter anything, either. On Monday, 12 other candidates appealed publicly to Mr Abubakar to drop his legal challenge. “He should avoid any action and utterances capable of fanning the embers of discord,” they advised. “Nigeria is greater than any personal or class interest.”

A triumphant Mr Buhari, who is now on course to celebrate his 80th birthday before he leaves office, has promised to build on his accomplishments so far in tackling Nigeria’s three main challenges: economic stagnation, rampant insecurity and endemic graft. The problem is that to date, Mr Buhari’s record on all these matters is dismal. Nigeria’s immense potential, it seems, will continue to go unmet.

Supporters of incumbent Muhammadu Buhari wave broomsticks, symbolic of his pledge to sweep to the nation’s institutions clean. Luis Tato / AFP
Supporters of incumbent Muhammadu Buhari wave broomsticks, symbolic of his pledge to sweep to the nation’s institutions clean. Luis Tato / AFP

The president’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) will spin this election as a vindication of four years of Buhari rule. But, in reality, it looks much more like a PDP loss than a show of faith in anyone else.

The median age in Nigeria is 18, and more than half of the country’s 84 million registered voters in this election were under 35. And yet voters were asked to choose between two septuagenarian political insiders, both incapable of campaigning on a platform of change.

A billionaire business magnate, Mr Abubakar has now contested, and lost, four presidential elections. His desperation for the top job dates back to his tenure as a frustrated vice president between 1999 and 2007, under the divisive leader Olusegun Obasanjo. Allegations of malfeasance cling to Mr Abubakar, many of them made by his former boss. Three weeks ago, his son-in-law was detained in a corruption probe. And on Monday, officers came for his personal lawyer. Across Nigeria, the suggestion that Mr Abubakar could transform the country was widely met with laughter.

Simply put, this was the PDP’s election to lose. And it did, with a record-low turnout of less than 35 per cent

Although his reputation is cleaner, Mr Buhari is little better. The ageing president spent so much of his first term in London on medical leave that he was forced to assure the public in December that he had not died and been replaced by an imposter. Quiet and insular, with a fierce reputation for discipline earned during his tenure as Nigeria’s military ruler in the 1980s, Mr Buhari has failed comprehensively to deliver on his lofty election promises.

Simply put, this was the PDP’s election to lose. And it did, with a record-low turnout of less than 35 per cent.

Nigeria is Africa’s biggest economy and its largest oil producer. And yet it recently leapfrogged India to become the nation with more people living in extreme poverty than anywhere else on earth. Nigerians deserve far better than that, but they are now sure to get more of the same.

In the first four decades after it gained independence from Britain in 1960, the country swung like a pendulum like a pendulum between civilian government and military rule. But, 20 years since its democratisation in 1999, many Nigerians are starting to feel that somewhat smooth elections are no longer enough.

And with good reason. The Nigerian economy, hobbled by corruption and ill-conceived foreign exchange policies that starved businesses of prized US dollars, is in deep trouble. More than 91 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day, while unemployment has risen from 10 per cent when Mr Buhari took office, four years ago, to 23 per cent today.

Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag seized during a battle in Damasak, Borno State. Emmanuel Braun / Reuters
Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag seized during a battle in Damasak, Borno State. Emmanuel Braun / Reuters

Insecurity and conflict have gripped large patches of the troubled north, where Boko Haram’s murderous insurgency continues to displace thousands each year. So fertile is the region for extremism – and so low is morale in the Nigerian army – that a new threat, Islamic State West Africa Province, has emerged, briefly seizing the small town of Baga in January.

A particularly violent conflict, between Christian farmers and mostly Muslim Fulani herders in the nation’s arid middle belt, driven by resource scarcity, left 1,300 dead in the first half of 2018 – six times more than died at the hands of Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, attempts to tackle banditry, kidnappings and an independence movement in the oil-rich but impoverished Niger Delta have ranged from insufficient to non-existent.

Corruption infiltrates all aspects of governance and business. And while the wealthy swan around the upscale neighbourhoods of lakeside Lagos, most Nigerians are struggling to get by.

The truth is that elections have ceased to mean much in Nigeria. Politicians flit constantly between parties, while almost every prominent supporter of Mr Abubakar – himself a former APC vice president – was at some point a member of the ruling party. In Mr Buhari’s ranks, too, are numerous former PDP diehards.

The result is that neither of the two main parties are rooted in any perceptible political ideology. And so, neither is capable of bringing change. Nigerians are likely to find that out the hard way for the next four years.

Updated: March 5, 2019 05:51 PM

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