Nigeria’s two main political parties have confirmed their presidential candidates for February’s elections, after the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) voted on 11 December in favour of former military ruler and three-times losing candidate Muhammadu Buhari. The appointment will see Buhari stand against President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in what is expected to be the most closely contested poll since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999. Despite widespread disaffection with Jonathan’s handling of the Boko Haram insurgency and the economy, the Nigerian election will ultimately be decided by each party’s ability to raise campaign funds and mobilise supporters along ethnic and regional lines.
Buhari’s nomination ends months of speculation over who will lead the APC. Formed in 2013, the APC is made up of a coalition of interest groups that have become increasingly disillusioned with Jonathan’s rule, and includes several prominent political figures. The party has won particular support in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north, where there is considerable anger over the escalating Boko Haram conflict and the perception that federal revenues are being channelled towards Jonathan’s home region in the south. This has contributed towards several major defections of PDP politicians to the APC, including some 37 members of the House of Representatives in late 2013, followed by a further 11 senators in 2014. The defections also reflect persistent tensions within the PDP over Jonathan’s re-election bid, which many claim breaks an unwritten tradition that the party’s candidacy alternates between north and south.
Despite the widespread dissatisfaction with Jonathan’s rule and continued divisions within the PDP, this still may not be enough to sway the vote in Buhari’s favour. Jonathan’s election campaign benefits from considerable advantages as the incumbent, including access to federal revenues, the support of the security forces and influence over the electoral commission. He also has support in key strongholds in the south where he is likely to win a large share of the vote. In his home region of the Niger Delta there is particular opposition to a northern candidate, amid fears this might see greater resistance to a renewal of the highly lucrative Presidential Amnesty Programme, which since 2009 has paid thousands of ex-militants a monthly stipend and is due to end in 2015. Many also fear a northern ruler would lead to a tougher crackdown on the illicit theft of oil, which constitutes a major part of the local economy in oil-producing regions.
A key factor in the vote will be the ability of each candidate to play on such regional rivalries to mobilise supporters. This has been reflected in the notable absence of debate on policy in the campaign thus far, with neither side detailing how they would tackle such key issues as the country’s growing budget deficit, oil sector reform and the ongoing privatisation of the power sector. Instead, both parties have resorted to rallying support along religious and regional lines, with the PDP labelling the APC an Islamist party, and the opposition accusing the ruling party of pandering to Christians. A further determining factor will be how much money the two parties can raise to pay off local power brokers and buy votes. Indicative of this, Nigeria’s Business Daily reported on 12 December that huge dollar spending on canvassing votes during the two parties’ primary elections contributed to an appreciation in the naira, as Lagos foreign exchange bureaux became awash with campaign dollars.
The APC’s ability to maintain campaign spending and support will depend heavily on its capacity to preserve party unity. There is a long precedent of opposition coalitions collapsing amid factional infighting in past elections, and the APC includes several prominent political figures that harbour their own presidential ambitions. These include the outgoing Governor of Kano Rabiu Kwankwaso, Speaker of the House of Representatives Aminu Tambuwal, and the second favourite in the recent APC primary former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. Thus far, however, the party has shown a comparatively stronger degree of cohesion, and party unity will also benefit from Buhari’s resounding victory in the party primary, in which he won 3,430 votes, compared to Abubakar’s 954. Abubakar has since conceded defeat and the continued support of such figures will be critical to the party winning in the populous north-west and south-west regions, both of which would pave the way for an unprecedented run-off. Buhari will now likely seek a vice presidential candidate who can help him transcend Nigeria’s contentious north-south divide, with front-runners including outgoing Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola or Kayode Fayemi, the former Governor of Ekiti State who is also a Catholic.
With the APC set to present one of the greatest challenges to the PDP’s leadership yet, the upcoming vote stands to be one of the most contentious in recent history. Even by the standards of Nigeria’s typically turbulent elections, this raises the prospect of widespread violence, particularly in the northeast and volatile Middle Belt regions, where religious and regional sensitivities are most acutely felt. The risk of violence will elevate further in the event one party rejects the results, a plausible scenario if Boko Haram is able to disrupt voting in key APC strongholds in the north. A run-off vote would also increase the risk of unrest, by prolonging the process and thus allowing tit-for-tat acts of intimidation and violence to escalate.