Boko Haram and the Ballot Box

Will Nigeria’s upcoming presidential election give the brutal terrorist group a chance to unleash a new wave of carnage?


It’s a precarious time for Nigerian democracy. With unemployment hovering above 20 percent, frustration over corruption and insecurity on the rise, and oil prices plummeting, the country’s Feb. 14 presidential election is set to be its most fraught since the democratic transition in 1999. But the contest, a rematch of the 2011 presidential election, may have already been decided. And the outcome may not have much at all to do with President Goodluck Jonathan, his challenger Muhammadu Buhari, or even Nigeria’s tens of millions of registered voters. Instead, it will likely be determined by Boko Haram, whose campaign of terror continues to ravage Nigeria’s northeast.

Since June, the Islamic militant group has seized some 20,000 square miles (an area the size of Belgium) in the three northeastern states of Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno. Many towns and villages in Yobe and Adamawa have fallen to Boko Haram, though the vast majority of captured territory is in Borno, 70 percent of which is now believed to be under Boko Haram’s control. The roads leading into its capital city of Maiduguri, which is still free from the insurgency, are filled with people fleeing Boko Haram. Many of them have been forced to walk for days to reach safety. With its population swollen by the internally displaced, Maiduguri finds itself increasingly isolated — encircled by an occupied countryside.

The base of support for Buhari’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), comes from Nigeria’s majority-Muslim northern states. (Buhari, the former military chief, is himself Muslim.) Since 2011, when Boko Haram started to intensify its attacks, frustrations with the unchecked insurgency have further entrenched the north’s support for the APC, and solidified its opposition to Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Conversely, with the Christian Jonathan as its leader, the PDP is considered representative of the majority-Christian south. It was largely for this reason that Buhari failed to win any southern, Christian-dominated state when he ran for the presidency in 2011.

Before Boko Haram took control of the north, it looked like this year’s election would come down to the competitive Middle Belt states, where there are sizable populations of both Christians and Muslims. So to win, the APC would have had to maximize its core vote in the north, and hope that a handful of Middle Belt or southern states also swing its way. But unfortunately for Buhari and his party, Boko Haram has rendered this path all but impossible. The north is still his stronghold, but the one million-plus people that have been forced to flee the militants in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa will not be allowed to vote; Nigeria’s election laws only allow people to cast ballots in their specific local government jurisdiction. With an expected turnout of around 40 to 50 million, one million votes could make all the difference in a close race.

Nigeria’s National Assembly could simply change the law to allow the internally displaced to vote, wherever they are. At the end of last year, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission requested that the assembly pass an amendment to that effect. But lawmakers failed to address the issue, due to a lengthy Christmas recess and a spate of defections between the APC and PDP that have destabilized the balance of power in the legislature. The PDP also has little incentive to push through a change that would enfranchise more APC supporters. If the assembly can overcome partisanship, there may yet be time to change the law. But for now, it appears to have rejected the commission’s proposal.

Crisis, thus, seems all-but-certain. On Jan. 6, the governors of Nigeria’s three northeastern states met with President Jonathan to ask him directly to ensure that everyone will be able to vote. They proposed that camps for the internally displaced include voting stations. In the days since, Jonathan has yet to signal his intentions. To make matters worse, the army may intervene to stop elections in certain areas of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, if it decides that the security risks are too high.

Beyond those forced to flee, Nigerians still trapped inside Boko Haram-held territory stand no chance of casting a ballot — further depressing the APC vote. In the Jan. 6 meeting, Alhaji Ibrahim Geidam, the governor of Yobe state, reportedly told Jonathan that current troops levels in his state cannot contain Boko Haram, and that he needs more men to ensure voters’ safety. At the moment, there are only about 20,000 troops deployed in northeast Nigeria — not nearly enough to guarantee security across the region. And the threat of Boko Haram could impact voter turnout even beyond the northeast. The insurgency’s new tactic of using child suicide bombers, with a devastating explosion in Maiduguri just last week, and its proven ability to attack anywhere in the north and Middle Belt, means nowhere that naturally leans Buhari is safe.

Alkasim Abdulkadir, a journalist and expert on Nigeria’s security establishment, is optimistic about the government’s efforts to protect the polls. He says there is a “heavy deployment of police and soldiers” to ward off the militants around polling stations, and there are plans to “cordon off polling units and subject voters to body scans and physical searches” to prevent suicide attacks. Nevertheless, skepticism still pervades. Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell echoed the prevailing wisdom: “It is highly unlikely that the government will be able to protect voters and polling centers from attacks by terrorists.”

If Boko Haram can sufficiently minimize Buhari’s share of the vote and indirectly deliver a victory to Jonathan, the group will have proven it can disrupt Nigeria’s democratic process — an extraordinary achievement for any insurgency. And it will also lead to chaos in the election’s aftermath: APC supporters won’t take kindly to a PDP victory they perceive as having been facilitated by Boko Haram, and further enabled by politicians in Abuja who could have changed the election laws.

As a consequence, Nigeria could be torn apart by a cascade of legal challenges, vitriol, and violence even worse than what followed the 2011 elections. In a statement issued on Nov. 21, APC National Publicity Secretary Lai Mohammed even pledged to form a “parallel government” if the party believes the election has been stolen. The battle between APC and PDP may become even uglier, as simmering regional tensions come to the fore and a disenfranchised, impoverished north comes up against blows against a comparatively powerful and wealthy south.

Such unrest would present an opportunity for the insurgents. Up until now, aside from sporadic bombings and gun attacks, Boko Haram has been confined to the northeast, unable to take firm hold territory elsewhere. It very well could seize on the post-election schisms to mount an existential challenge to the whole Nigerian state.

Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

Andrew Noakes is Coordinator of the Nigeria Security Network. Twitter: @andrew_noakes

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