International observers, including the International Crisis Group and Western governments, believe Nigeria’s 28 March elections could be marred by a combination of failures across the spectrum of polling activities. Core vulnerabilities include logistics, balloting and security at polling stations; the likelihood of both leading candidates claiming victory; and rejection of results in various parts of the country. Any combination of these factors could lead to a breakdown of law and order, and even increase pressure for the installation of an interim government.
Nigerians will go the polls on 28 March to elect their president and new lawmakers, after elections were postponed some six weeks ago due to security concerns and logistical problems.
A rematch of the 2011 elections between the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan (a southern Christian) and Muhammadu Buhari (a norther Muslim and a former military chief), the pending elections promise to be a closely fought affair.
To win in the first round, a candidate needs over 50% of the national vote and at least 25% of the votes in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. If there is no such winner, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is required to organise a run-off between the two leading candidates, with the same requirements. In the unlikely event a clear winner again fails to emerge, there must, within seven days, be a third simple-majority election between the two candidates. The INEC has already warned that it is doubtful whether a run-off vote could be organised at such short notice.
Parliamentary elections will see 739 candidates vying for a place in the 109 seat Senate and 1 780 seeking election to the 360 seat National Assembly. Nigerians will vote again on 11 April to choose new governors and state assemblies for 29 of the 36 federal states.
Importantly, the extra preparation time for the elections has enabled the INEC to deliver more permanent voter cards (PVCs) and test the new PVC readers that will be used for the first time to check voter cards. Over 68 million Nigerians have registered for elections – about 40% of the population.
The past weeks have allowed President Jonathan’s well-funded ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to campaign more vigorously, while the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has increasingly appeared short of funds. This consequence of the postponement – some critics say this was part of the PDP’s last minute strategy to defeat the APC and Buhari – means that if he loses the election, Buhari is unlikely to accept the result without court challenges and maybe encouraging his supporters to initiate public protest actions.
The postponement was ostensibly to give time for a major offensive against the armed Islamist Boko Haram group. Although the government’s forces have made gains, largely with the help of regional forces from Chad and Niger, as well as Private Military Contractors (PMCs), the PDP’s hope of a substantial weakening of Boko Haram has probably not materialised.
The following potential red flags need to be noted:
The chance of a further postponement is extremely remote, but several election-related lawsuits are still pending, some due for hearing only a day before the polls. Another postponement cannot be entirely ruled out, but the APC has already warned that its supporters will fiercely resist any further delay.
Each of the two major parties will question the credibility of any results that run contrary to its expectations. Attempts at vote rigging and other fraudulent activity are expected from all parties. There are indications that especially the PDP and some marginal parties continue to oppose some of the technical innovations the INEC is introducing to minimise fraud and improve the vote’s credibility.
Victory by either candidate will cause significant security challenges. The main candidates and many of their supporters strongly reject even the possibility that they could lose. If Jonathan wins, violent protests are likely as he is highly unpopular in the far north. Similarly, a Buhari victory will almost certainly spark protests in Jonathan’s Niger Delta home region. This is the heart of Nigeria’s oil industry, and local people could attack oil installations to deny income to a new government.
For the first time since 1999, a run-off seems a real possibility. If there is a run-off, the period of uncertainty between the successive ballots will lead to increased tensions throughout the country.
Boko Haram is likely to see the elections as an opportunity to regain media attention after a few weeks of military setbacks. Intelligence contacts in Nigeria warn that the group still has the capacity to launch disruptive terrorist attacks and this could see the cancellation of voting at some polling stations.
The most likely scenario is that President Jonathan will scrape home during the first round, but such a result is unlikely to be accepted by his opponents and could stimulate violent protests, especially in the northern states. However, the possibility of a run-off election is almost the same as that of a Jonathan victory. The worst-case scenario, that the military could intervene, ostensibly to restore law and order, seems very unlikely.