Nigerian voters know that their country faces a list of problems. After a decade of growth, the federal government has failed to acknowledge that Africa’s wealthiest economy also has one of the highest rates of poverty in the world. Extreme poverty is overshadowed by a small class well-to-do businessmen in European suits and SUVs, so often enriched and protected by connections to influential politicians or the petroleum industry. For the rest, insufferable corruption is driving dissatisfaction, skepticism, and hunger to dangerous levels. And then there’s Boko Haram, which continues its senseless slaughter in the north.
On March 28th, Nigeria will hold its most significant election since the establishment of the democratic Fourth Republic in 1999. Popular resentment threatens to unseat the incumbent head of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Goodluck Jonathan. His opponent, retired general Muhammadu Buhari, would be an unlikely challenger in normal times. He briefly led Nigeria after a 1983 military coup, until he was ousted by another coup two years later. The sense that the PDP, which has not been significantly challenged since the Fourth Republic was created, is suddenly vulnerable to defeat has rallied desperate voters behind Buhari. He has shown political skill by assembling a coalition out of several smaller opposition parties, and by broadening his base beyond his home turf in the Muslim-dominated north.
This was a moment not just to denounce the current government’s neglect, but also to force both candidates to talk seriously about how to reduce poverty by including more of its people in the country’s growing economy. Unfortunately, both men’s campaigns seek to build a cult of personality and depict an intolerable future if the other wins. Equally troubling is the fact that the candidates will not hold a single debate before the election. Jonathan and Buhari are both guilty of avoiding discussion of several urgent problems that, if unaddressed, threaten to undo the country’s entire political system.
Buhari’s rise can be attributed to Jonathan’s massive failures against the Boko Haram insurgency in the north. During the same few days that French terrorists killed 17 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices and around Paris, Boko Haram was literally removing the town of Baga from the map. The Nigerian army claims that around 150 people were killed, while locals and Amnesty International estimate more than 2,000 casualties. In the following days, Jonathan flew to Paris to condemn the Hebdo attacks and march in solidarity against terrorism, without saying a word about the massacre of his own people. His refusal to acknowledge reality echoes his non-reaction to the infamous Chibok girl kidnappings and other similarly horrible, yet less-reported, acts by Boko Haram.
Perhaps in desperation, many voters—especially those in the north who feel most threatened by the insurgency—turned to retired general Buhari, whose brief military rule was characterized by eccentric policies that are not remembered fondly today. His recent resurgence in popularity may indicate the public’s shifting preference towards a whatever-it-takes mentality to stop Boko Haram. There is every reason to believe that if Buhari is indeed elected, he could pursue an excessive crackdown in the name of eliminating the terrorist group. But given Buhari’s own long history of power abuses using the military, it is easy to imagine how such a crackdown could destroy many civilian lives in the process. An authoritative military solution could further destabilize the north, and dissolve any remaining confidence among northerners in the distant capital’s ability to govern their lands.
Buhari has pledged that if he becomes president, he will clean up the north “in two months.” While Jonathan certainly should have hastened his attempts to put out the flames, a two-month proposal begs the question as to what techniques Buhari will endorse. During his past rule, Buhari jailed journalists, threatened intellectuals, publicly beat and humiliated “undisciplined” civilians, and increased mandatory sentencing for petty offenses. To instigate these techniques would mean addressing Boko Haram as a purely military problem. Buhari will risk exacerbating the social ills that have perpetuated many northerners’ distaste for the federal government, even those who haven’t joined the insurgency.
Boko Haram dominates the narrative of Buhari’s campaign. But Nigeria needs a president who is ready to tackle critical economic and civil issues alongside terrorism, recognizing that these problems are not unrelated. Many experts have remarked that high oil prices, rather than Jonathan’s presidency, account for Nigeria’s economic success in the 21st century. The country has made decent strides towards diversification, but oil still accounts for 95 percent of exports and 75 percent of government revenue. At current oil prices, the government will have to borrow heavily or restructure its budget. Exporters will feel the pain, too. And as oil revenues drop, so does employment in Africa’s largest petroleum state.
Buhari overthrew an unpopular president thirty years ago, at a time when oil prices were dropping and inflation was crippling Nigerians’ ability to buy basic goods. His unusual solution was to raise taxes on the poor and restrict the import of “unnecessary” goods that he believed were draining the country’s income. He is perhaps best remembered for launching a “war against indiscipline,” which targeted the graft that continues to be the main inhibitor to Nigeria’s development. Nigeria does need a war on corruption, and that means amending the power structure that allows government and business elites to drain the productivity out of its people. Buhari limited his efforts to targeting several hundred high profile businessmen and government officials and throwing them in jail. Such a spectacle makes good political theater, but does little to assure that their replacements will behave any better. Corruption, like the northern insurgency, is a systemic problem in Nigeria. Fighting it requires more than just pruning its visible manifestations. Nigerians need a president with a deep, sincere commitment to investigate and uproot the factors that have allowed corruption to flourish.
One bright spot in Nigeria’s economy is its growing technology sector, which now accounts for an impressive 10 percent of GDP. Programming and coding skills offer a way for Africans to compete when a lack of infrastructure puts them at a disadvantage in many traditional industrial sectors. But would-be entrepreneurs are hamstrung by Nigeria’s state-controlled power sector, which is on the brink of collapse due to mishandling and twisted regulations. Privatizing energy production is the best way to release it from state corruption, meet Nigeria’s high demand, and unleash the potential of the country’s many young tech entrepreneurs (for inspiration, look to Nigeria’s telecommunications industry, which is competitive, profitable, and now provides over 75 percent of Nigerians with cellular service). Under president Jonathan, Nigeria has failed to provide consistent energy input needed for the technology sector to flourish. Under his rule, the country has fallen to a pitiful 187 out of 189 in the World Bank’s annual ease of getting electricity rankings. Buhari has been quiet on the issue.
Insecurity, corruption, and bad economics are crippling the promise of a land endowed with enormous natural wealth and human capital. The election offered an opportunity for Nigeria to address its grim prospects, and debate much-needed solutions. Unfortunately, serious debate has been absent from both campaigns, replaced with vitriolic rhetoric and personal attacks—one of president Jonathan’s allies told a crowd that opposition voters were “cockroaches” who needed to be crushed. Tensions are high in Nigeria, and an especially contentious election or allegations of fraud may lead either side to reject the results. A victory by either candidate could lead to overt campaigns for federal dissolution in the rural Muslim north, or secession in the southern oil-producing Niger Delta. Whatever the outcome, the country’s once bright future will probably continue to dim. The sky is falling in Nigeria, and it may bring down the Fourth Republic with it.
Barrett Browne is a first-year graduate student in the Security Policy Studies program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. After completing a BA in Government at the University of Texas in Austin, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon from 2011-2013. He is now focusing on economic development in Africa and how it affects terrorism in the region. He currently interns at the US Treasury Department, Office of African Nations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author; they do not represent the views of the United States government or the United States Treasury Department.