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Nigeria’s 2015 Elections: Prologue to the Past?

This article originally appeared in The Brookings Institution on April 13, 2015.

By Richard Joseph

In the 45 years since the Nigerian civil war ended in January 1970, Nigeria has often seemed on the verge of making significant political advances. While its population soared, however, the country stumbled through one contentious electoral exercise after another, interspersed with military rule. The recent 2015 elections, which elevated Muhammadu Buhari to the powerful presidency, have produced a significant shift in control of national and state governments from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC). The PDP had been the dominant party for 16 straight years.

While power will be transferred on May 29, the PDP has not been decimated. It controls a reduced but significant number of executive and legislative offices while each party has pried senatorial seats from the others’ strongholds. The PDP faces the challenge, however, of reconstituting itself as a viable opposition party and allowing a new generation of leaders to emerge. Both parties are weak in ideology thereby carpet-crossing is relatively easy. Nigerian party politics, however, must now be elevated above opportunism, mass bribery, and ethno-regional bartering.

The APC won control of roughly 60 percent of the federal Senate and House of Representatives and a substantial majority of the state governorships and assemblies. It is therefore well-placed to design and implement new policies and practices. The APC also brings together, for the first time in a formal coalition, political leaders of the core Hausa-Fulani northern states and almost all of the predominantly Yoruba southwest. The overriding question, however, is: Will Nigeria now experience greater domestic peace and inclusive development? In addition, will the achievement gap between competitive clientelism and the developmentalism of authoritarian states like Ethiopia and Rwanda be bridged? No firm answer to this question has been given in Africa except in small or island states like Cape Verde and Mauritius, or well-endowed but low-population countries like Namibia.

A northern Muslim leader like Buhari, determined to reverse the political and economic slippage of his region, and allied with southwest leaders who have achieved the greatest socio-economic advances in the post-1999 civilian era, presents Nigeria with the opportunity to shift the axis of governance towards peace and development. Buhari brings to the presidency wide support throughout the north, including the northeast states wracked by Boko Haram violence.

Moreover, there is now a trough of inter-religious conflict and fear in the northeast reminiscent of the perennial clashes along the Muslim-Christian fault-line of Plateau state and environs. In the March 28 vote, the APC prevailed in four of seven middle-belt states, all of which had been taken by Jonathan and the PDP in 2011. Overshadowed in recent years by Boko Haram atrocities, the core middle-belt states urgently require peaceful accommodation among groups divided by religion, ethnicity, and herding or agricultural pursuits.

It was feared that if Jonathan lost the presidency, the insurgency in the Delta area would be rekindled. While that prospect is not precluded, Goodluck Jonathan’s graceful concession doused a potential spark. In the March 28 federal and April 14 local balloting, oil-producing Rivers state was the site of the most violent conflicts and electoral abuses. In this regard, southeast Nigeria might replicate the thuggish conflicts of the Yoruba southwest that precipitated the 1967-70 civil war. The defection of leading politicians to the opposition can trigger fierce battles for the control of state and local governments and the enormous spoils of oil revenue allocation. For example, when Rotimi Amaechi, outgoing governor of Rivers state, crossed over to the APC, it created a major breach between his supporters and the Jonathan-led contingent dominant throughout the Delta and southeast.

As Nigerians ponder how they can emerge from the abyss of political conflict, corruption, and discordant development, their leaders should reflect on a pertinent comment by journalist Thomas Friedman concerning the Middle East: “Past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it is hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon.” Will the Nigerian 2015 elections, despite the initial positive outcomes, devolve into another prologue to the past? Or is the country on the verge of a significantly new political era? The destiny of 175 million Nigerians rests precariously on the answer.

Richard Joseph is John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion, Politics

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