On 31 March Muhammadu Buhari won the Nigerian presidential election, marking the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history. Despite isolated instances of election-related civil unrest and violence, the likelihood of a repeat of the widespread post-election violence witnessed in 2011 remains minimal as President Goodluck Jonathan has conceded defeat, urging his supporters to remain peaceful. Notwithstanding encouraging political and security developments, the situation will remain tense in the lead-up to the gubernatorial elections on 11 April, and the potential for violence in volatile areas such as the Niger Delta, as well as restrictions on movement, will persist.
Buhari won the 28 March presidential election with 15.4 mn votes to Jonathan’s 13.3 mn, with the former military general performing well in the north and central states, and the outgoing president taking his traditional strongholds in the southeast Niger Delta. Jonathan, who has been in power since 2010, conceded defeat peacefully and issued a statement urging his supporters to accept the result and not to turn to violence in protest over the outcome. The outgoing president will now have until 29 May to organise the transfer of power to Buhari.
Despite elevated tensions ahead of the poll, which was delayed by six weeks from 14 February to allow the government more time to combat Boko Haram militants in the north of the country, the vote went ahead with few outbreaks of severe violence. There were some isolated politically motivated shootings in Lagos, Osun, Port Harcourt, Bauchi and Sagamu, while there were also suspected small-scale Boko Haram attacks in Gombe, Yobe and Bauchi states, and explosions occurred at polling stations in Anambra and Enugu, with a total of around 50 people killed. However, nothing resembling the scale of the 2011 election violence, when nearly 800 people were killed in three days of rioting, predominantly in northern states, has been witnessed so far.
Based on current indications, the prospect for such violence ahead of the 29 May deadline for the handover of power is low. Both Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) and Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have called for calm and urged their supporters to limit post-election rallies and protests. There have already been reports of celebratory marches occurring in Buhari strongholds in the north, including in Kano and Kaduna, but with the former general winning such a large percentage of the vote in these areas – including nearly 95 percent in Borno – the potential for clashes with PDP supporters remains minimal.
Although a number of PDP supporters have protested alleged fraud and collaboration between the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the APC, these demonstrations have gained little traction. Crucially, the unprecedented use of biometric card readers, designed to lock automatically when the full quota of eligible voters at polling stations was accredited, significantly reduced opportunities for fraud and allegations of vote rigging during this poll. PDP protesters launched a sit-in in Abuja during the announcement of the results while some protests erupted in Nasarawa State over alleged misconduct during the poll. Since the results have been confirmed there have been further rejections of the result by PDP supporters in Lagos. However, in the absence of considerable evidence to support their claims or backing from Jonathan, these protests are likely to remain localised and will fail to attract sufficient momentum to damage the credibility of the result or threaten post-election stability. APC demonstrations over alleged electoral fraud in Rivers State, which had caused serious traffic disruption on Aba Road in Port Harcourt on 29 March, are also expected to diminish now that Jonathan has conceded defeat.
Security concerns persist despite encouraging developments
Despite the absence of indications of large-scale violence emerging so far, restrictions on movement and curfews are likely to remain in place for at least the next 48 hrs. There are indefinite curfews in place between 1930 and 0600 hrs local time in Ekiti and Rivers State and these measures could be extended to other areas should more significant outbreaks of unrest occur over the coming days. Additionally, while restrictions on movement in other urban areas were lifted on 29 March, security checkpoints remain in place in the centre of larger towns, including Lagos, where movement on the main Ikorodu road will likely be slow until at least the end of the week. Although the government has yet to announce more substantial restrictions on movement, there is a strong likelihood that similar restrictive measures to those imposed prior to the presidential vote, including border closures, will be introduced ahead of the gubernatorial election on 11 April. Restrictions are likely to be particularly stringent in Lagos, Kano and Rivers State where there are open gubernatorial seats that will be tightly contested.
Though Jonathan has pledged to accept the outcome of the vote, his statements and actions in the run-up to 29 May will be critical indicators of his willingness to hand over power. Any indication that he is considering altering course and rejecting the result, including calls for an extension of the transitional period, will almost certainly trigger much larger instances of violence and civil unrest. Potential flashpoints for unrest include Rivers State, particularly in Port Harcourt, as well as Jonathan strongholds in Delta and Ekiti States and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
The likelihood of further violence in the Niger Delta is particularly high given the presence of a number of groups of former militants in the area, who were heavily dependent on amnesty payments from the Jonathan government and had warned of violence if Buhari were to win the poll. Importantly, the insurgents have been significantly weakened and have become increasingly factionalised since the amnesty was agreed in 2009, and there is little possibility of them launching a large-scale attack in the short term. Nevertheless, less sophisticated IED attacks, as well as vandalism and arson attacks, could occur in protest against the result. Previous targets of assaults have included oil infrastructure as well as APC party offices and the INEC building in Emohua Local Government area of Rivers, and security will likely be heightened in these areas over the coming days.
Should Jonathan persist with his peaceful response to the poll and step down on 29 May, militancy in the Niger Delta will be a crucial ongoing challenge for Buhari’s presidency. A decision on whether to renew amnesty payments to the insurgents will have considerable implications for stability in the oil-producing southeast. The president elect will also face significant pressure to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency in the northern regions of the country and to unite with Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian troops to overcome the militants, something Jonathan has been repeatedly criticised for failing to do. His most critical challenge, however, will come in his efforts to tackle corruption, rampant under Goodluck Jonathan whose government was reported in 2014 to have stolen USD 20 bn from the central bank. Whether Buhari, who during his brief period in power in 1983 was accused of economic mismanagement and authoritarian rule, will be able to root out such pervasive illicit practices, will be a vital determining factor in any assessment of his longer-term success.