Nigeria’s resurgent president has made the most of a six-week election postponement, taking the fight to Boko Haram and stumping across the country. But are Nigerians too fed up with corrupt government to re-elect him?
- By Chika OduahChika Oduah is a freelance journalist based in Abuja, Nigeria. Follower her on Twitter: @chikaoduah.
ABUJA, Nigeria — Perhaps only the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti could have foreseen that his 1972 hit, “Roforofo Fight,” would offer a chilling prophecy of what has become the most heated political campaign in his country’s history. In his funky tune, the late revolutionary music icon depicts a down-and-dirty, You-slap-my-hand, I’ll-punch-your-eyes-out, low-down, mudslinging street fight. (Roforofo is Yoruba for mud.) “Two people dey yab, crowd dey look, roforofo dey,” Kuti belts in a feverish mantra over blaring horn riffs.
The campaign season of the last three months has been a roforofo fight for the ages. The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party has for the first time presented an actual threat to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which put an end to decades of military rule in 1999. From the crowded streets of Lagos to the dusty fields in Baga to the palatial mansions in Abuja, Nigerians have watched an increasingly fierce tussle unfold. With each fresh blow, President Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP and the APC’s Gen. Muhammadu Buhari appeared more soiled. Neither candidate will look clean by the time the voting starts on March 28.
On Feb. 7, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission announced that the presidential election would be postponed by six weeks from the originally scheduled date of Feb. 14. The commission attributed the delay to Boko Haram’s deadly campaign in the northeast, a predominantly Muslim area with sizable Christian communities sprinkled in. Boko Haram’s campaign has killed nearly 13,000 people and displaced over 1 million — and the inability to quell the violence has roiled Jonathan’s government.
Before the postponement, the APC had reached political heights unmatched by any previous opposition party in Nigeria. Under the resurgent Buhari, who led Nigeria’s military government from December 1983 to August 1985, the party seemed to capture many voters’ hopes for a more secure, less corrupt nation. Even so, it’s difficult to gauge the extent of support for the opposition. Though local groups in Nigeria have tried to conduct credible public opinion surveys, polling data is still famously unreliable, due to the considerable challenge of reaching those outside of urban areas. Without rural tallies, it is difficult to assess whether Jonathan, a Christian from the south, or Buhari, a Muslim from the north, would win — if, of course, the election is carried out without voter intimidation and rigging.
Luckily, there’s social media. Nigeria takes the No. 1 spot in sub-Saharan Africa for social media usage. Over 11 million Nigerians are on Facebook, according to CP-Africa. The growing influence of the Nigerian Twitterati encourages (or provokes, depending on where you stand) political officials to engage with Nigerians on Twitter and Facebook. At the same time, tweets also function as propaganda. “The authentic electoral map that PDP won’t like you to see,” @Official_CheeXy tweeted on March 25, accompanied by a color-coded map of Nigeria suggesting that support for Jonathan is waning. As social media and political analysts like Nwachukwu Egbunike argue, there’s an increasing convergence between what’s trending on Twitter and what’s hot in Nigerian politics. If its social media landscape is any guide — un-empirical though it may be — the APC might have won had elections been held on schedule back in mid-February.
But the PDP has surged back, as Jonathan has diversified his regional support base by highlighting more national concerns — namely, assuring Nigerians that they will be able to vote safely. Yet he’s fighting against a tainted image: His administration is widely viewed as being corrupt.
Coming into the election, Jonathan’s vulnerabilities were obvious. For years, Nigerians have regarded him as being too lackadaisical about curbing terrorism. In a televised interview with Nigerian journalists last month, he promised that the military could suppress Boko Haram and ensure that voting could take place. His national security advisor, Sambo Dasuki, promised citizens that all known Boko Haram encampments would be destroyed within the six weeks of the postponement period. But Nigerians immediately took to social media to ask: If the PDP hadn’t yet managed to quash an insurgency that’s been raging for six years, how could it possibly pull it off in six weeks?
As Nigerians know, the task facing their military and the allies that have joined their fight is formidable. According to a March 19 report by the Nigeria Security Network (NSN), a collective of researchers who study Boko Haram, the terrorist group had “pushed government forces out of vast swathes [sic] of territory in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states after a rapid advance beginning around July 2014.” NSN also reports that some 70 percent of Borno state is in the grips of Boko Haram.
But everything changed after the postponement. A once-demoralized Nigerian military, consisting of reportedly poorly paid troops often accused of running away from the insurgents rather than fighting them, has been revitalized — thanks in part to fresh acquisitions of equipment. Where this new equipment comes from the Nigerian Army will not say. Government officials did note last year that they were seeking arms from Russia, and local media have reported that the new arms are from countries in Eastern Europe. With renewed zeal, Nigerian forces are pushing back Boko Haram, alongside troops from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Since the elections were delayed, defense officials have announced the liberation of more towns nearly every week. To date, more than 40 towns have been declared recaptured by Nigeria’s military forces, including Baga, the site of Boko Haram’s bloodiest attack. “In recent weeks the tide of the conflict against Boko Haram has dramatically and suddenly turned in the government’s favour,” NSN reports. On Friday, the Nigerian army announced that it had reclaimed Gwoza, Boko Haram’s main stronghold in the northeast, sending the insurgent group scattering.
Skeptics doubt the extent to which the Nigerian Army has actually led the fight against Boko Haram, choosing instead to give credit to troops from Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, as well as to foreign mercenaries. But while Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian troops have contributed significantly, they still can’t enter Nigeria without government approval. The operation is still very much Nigeria-led.
The opposition has decried the army’s moves as too little, too late, and driven by politics. Buhari thinks he has the credibility to take on Jonathan’s government when it comes to security. His strongman reputation dates back to his 20 months as head of state in the 1980s, when he honed a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails persona. As part of his now-infamous “War Against Indiscipline,” civil servants were ordered to do frog jumps if they showed up to work late, and nearly 500 public officials and businesspeople were jailed for corruption. If elected, the three-time presidential aspirant promises to be “tough on terrorism” and to restore the luster of the Nigerian military and the role of the nation as a regional stabilizer. He has also focused his campaign on promises to tackle rampant corruption, bolster domestic insecurity, and revitalize the economy, which is currently buckling under the weight of falling oil prices.
On Feb. 26, several weeks after the postponement was announced, the retired general spoke at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, seemingly in hopes of presenting a new image of himself to the world. “What has been consistently lacking is the required leadership in our battle against insurgency,” Buhari said. He also tried to reverse the popular perception of him as a “former dictator,” attempting to rebrand himself as a “converted democrat.” (As the address went on, a small gathering coalesced outside; some of the anti-Buhari demonstrators had reportedly been paid.)
But while APC representatives dilly-dallied about London, the Nigerian press was rife with speculation that the 72-year-old had gone to Britain to address health concerns. The APC was forced to dispel such rumors (the memory of Jonathan’s ill-fated predecessor, Musa Yar’Adua, whose illness caused public panic when he was not seen or heard publicly for weeks before his death, is still fresh in the minds of many Nigerians). But some damage was done: Some analysts noted that, during the two weeks that Buhari spent abroad, the APC campaign lost momentum.
Unlike Buhari, Jonathan spent his postponement close to home, capitalizing on the military’s recent successes. In late February, he made surprise campaign visits to Mubi and Baga, two former Boko Haram strongholds, forcing even the most apathetic of Nigerian voters to consider the possibility that the president may indeed have the right stuff to defeat Boko Haram. In Baga, Nigerian soldiers greeted Jonathan chanting, “Never again,” a new spin on an old slogan directed at Boko Haram: No more will rebels threaten Nigeria’s territorial integrity.
The military victories appear to have had an effect on voters in Africa’s most populous nation. “The postponement has clearly benefitted Jonathan,” said Nigerian political commentator Tolu Ogunlesi. “On the flip side, it has made people question the timing. People are asking, ‘Why now? Why is it you are doing something now during the postponement?’”
In the contested southwestern states where the opposition holds a majority, Jonathan has wooed traditional chiefs and monarchs who yield great respect among those outside of the urban centers — the Alaafin of Oyo, the Oloja of Epe, the Soun of Ogbomoso, and so on, all prominent custodians of Nigerian culture. “Traditional rulers become richer after Jonathan’s visits,” read one headline in a Nigerian news outlet. Jonathan made many of these moves, notably, after the announcement of the election postponement.
First lady Patience Jonathan has also been instrumental to the president’s reinvigorated stumping. Rather than pitching her husband abroad, she has sought favor from working class and rural-based Nigerian women. At a rally on March 3 in the north-central Kogi state, Mrs. Jonathan emphasized the unprecedented number of women appointed in the presidential cabinet. The first lady also reportedly distributed 1,200 bags of rice, 5,000 bundles of brocade fabric, 800 blankets, 2,000 rubber mats, and 800 pieces of children’s clothing to women in the northwestern state of Sokoto. Many Nigerians, particularly those in its middle and upper class, cringe when Mrs. Jonathan walks before a podium. But the masses of lower- and working-class women with limited education may find her more appealing and intellectually accessible. She speaks pidgin, the colorful slang language of the people; she dances, sings, and prays onstage, responding to “Amens” from the crowd like a Pentecostal pastor.
Jonathan’s campaign also seems to recognize where it is weak. Last April, Boko Haram militants abducted 276 secondary-schoolgirls in the Borno state village of Chibok. Jonathan has faced wide ridicule for failing to visit Chibok following their abduction. On March 5, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Jonathan’s finance minister, visited Chibok, becoming the highest-ranking federal official to visit the still-scarred community. On Jonathan’s behalf, Okonjo-Iweala laid a foundation stone at the secondary school as a symbolic gesture to commemorate the beginning of construction work to rebuild it.
In the buildup to Election Day, the roforofo fight seems unending. Nigerians have witnessed shifting loyalties this political season. Well-known public figures and politicians switched — or “defected,” as it’s often referred to here — from PDP to APC, and vice versa. Young people are also more politically engaged than in recent years. Stanley Kavwam, 30, from the north-central state of Plateau, was once a stalwart for the ruling party, representing the youth vote. But now, he’s campaigning for APC with a wholehearted opposition against the ruling party. “The degree of corruption in Nigeria under the PDP has reached a level where a minister can use 10 billion naira on a private jet,” he points out.
But in the same state, Edmund Zungdet scoffs at the “assertive tactics” of the APC. “As far as we are concerned, we are on the winning side,” Zungdet says with a calm assurance. He believes the election postponement has fatigued the APC.
On the roadside along Abuja’s tree-lined boulevards, taxi drivers waiting for passengers break out into open debates about what will happen on March 28. On the television, political advertisements depict Buhari as the man who will fight for the talakawa, or the masses outside of the social elite, while Jonathan is presented as the man who must stay in power to continue what he has started.
Nigerian writer Mercy Abang-Asu says that in her eight years of monitoring elections in Nigeria with various organizations, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), this is the most tense political season she has experienced. Late-night meetings with the political elite are kept secret until they’re reported. Nigerians frequently feel left in the dark by their politicians, and see everywhere plots to rig the ballot or buy voters. Popular suspicion is rife that the current head of the electoral commission will be removed if he does not allow the ruling party to manipulate the vote.
“Both sides think they have already won. That is the beginning of the problem,” Abang-Asu says, referring to the confidence that President Jonathan and Buhari have expressed in recent interviews with international media.
Apart from Buhari’s Chatham House appearance and a few town hall meetings, Adeolu Akande, a member of Buhari’s campaign, acknowledges that his candidate has not been very active. Even so, he asserts that Buhari has benefitted from the election postponement — albeit, not through his own actions, but by those of the PDP, which he says have served only to divide Nigerians. “We see a situation where the postponement has helped many people make up their minds with the all the fearmongering and political posturing the PDP is doing,” Akande says.
But is Buhari too much in defense mode, spending all his time refuting PDP propaganda? Will his message of change be strong enough to knock out the power of incumbency on Election Day?
With only a day left before Nigerians go to the polls, President Jonathan and General Buhari are making final appeals for those who still have not made up their minds.
“This period is a period for the undecided,” Abang says. “It’s for the middle-class people who have a mind of their own and judge [you] on your actions.”
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images