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FP’s Guide to Nigeria’s Election

Articles to read ahead of a crucial vote.

A ballot box is seen at a polling station of Gombi, Adamawa State, Nigeria on Feb. 15, one day ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections.(Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)
A ballot box is seen at a polling station of Gombi, Adamawa State, Nigeria on Feb. 15, one day ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections.(Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

As Nigeria’s approximately 84 million registered voters prepared to go to the polls on Feb. 16, election officials announced that the election would be delayed by one week, due to logistical concerns and in order to ensure that the vote is free and fair. The announcement came at 2:30 a.m. local time, only a few hours before polling places were scheduled to open.

On Feb. 23, the country’s overwhelmingly young population faces a choice between two men in their 70s: the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari—a onetime military leader who was elected democratically in 2015—and his challenger, Atiku Abubakar, a wealthy businessman who has faced allegations of corruption that he denies.

In a country where regional and religious identity has long played a role in politics, this election pits two Muslim candidates from the North against each other, reducing the opportunities for geographical or sectarian pandering and raising the question of which of them will appeal to voters in the country’s predominantly Christian and oil-rich south.

As Nigerians and foreign observers await the results, here are five recent articles from Foreign Policy outlining what is at stake in this election and what the future may hold.

While the two leading candidates in this year’s election may not seem to offer any radical new ideas, they have, argues historian Max Siollun, actually opened the door to what could be one of the most dramatic reforms in Nigerian history—a restructuring of the country’s complex federal system. Atiku, as he is known in Nigeria, has described the status quo as “unworkable” and hinted that, if elected, he might allow oil-rich southern states more control over the revenues they generate (rather than redistributing them nationwide) while letting individual states field their own security forces (rather than shipping in federal troops unfamiliar with local languages and terrain). This is no small matter in a country that fought a three-year civil war from 1967-1970 to prevent the secession of one southern state. If Atiku wins, he’ll be expected to follow through. If Buhari is re-elected he will not be able to avoid the debate.

Buhari may have been elected democratically four years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s a democrat, argues Remi Adekoya. Instead, he is behaving like the dictator he once was in the 1980s, harassing and arresting journalists, intimidating opponents, refusing to apologize for the army’s killing of unarmed demonstrators, and many believe, preparing to rig the election in his favor. The latest controversy is his suspension of the country’s Chief Justice who might have presided over election disputes—a move described as a “brazen dictatorial act” by Atiku.

In the country’s southeast, which seceded from Nigeria in 1967, sparking a bloody war that ended with the Republic of Biafra’s reincorporation into Nigeria, pro-independence sentiment is newly resurgent, writes Oluwotasin Adeshokan. But many voters in the region are planning to sit out the election as a show of civil disobedience because they don’t see either of the main candidates offering them anything worth voting for.

In northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s reign of terror has led to the killing and kidnapping of many civilians; it has also created a refugee crisis as tens of thousands of Nigerians have fled to neighboring Cameroon. Until recently, writes Philip Obaji, Jr., Cameroon was one of the most welcoming countries in the world for refugees. But now, in the midst of its own violent crackdown on protesters in its Anglophone regions, the Cameroonian government is forcibly expelling Nigerian refugees in violation of international law and sending them back into danger across the border.

Whoever wins the election will have to tackle the issue of poverty in a country where close to 50 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty. And one thing is clear: economic growth in Nigeria hasn’t always benefited the poor because it often occurs alongside increases in inequality—entrenching existing disparities and preventing the poor from gaining an education and moving up the income ladder, argues Zuhumnan Dapel.

 Results from the election are expected to be declared by the middle of next week.