Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has broken with President Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in favor of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). This move, along with numerous other defections from the ruling party, may be a sign that the hitherto badly splintered ruling elites may be coming together again in the face of the Boko Haram insurgency, corruption, incompetency of the federal government, and the Abuja government’s declining economic performance.
Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s positive polling data and the anecdotal evidence of his growing appeal in all parts of the country and across religious and ethnic lines may reflect this emerging elite consensus. A largely reunited political class in favor of Buhari would make it difficult for Jonathan and the PDP to rig the presidential elections.
Postponed, ostensibly to provide space for the security services to defeat Boko Haram, the presidential election is now scheduled for March 28. After five years of failing to curb the radical Islamist insurgency, it is difficult to imagine that the security situation in the northeast will change much in just six weeks. Even if the government recaptures towns from Boko Haram, the large number of internally displaced persons and refugees, likely Buhari supporters, still would not be able to vote. But, if Buhari sweeps much of the nation, then the possible disenfranchisement of Buhari’s supporters in the northeast would be of minor importance. A Buhari administration elected in a credible election with support from across the country would be well-placed to address Nigeria’s extraordinary challenges and would signal the end of the current political crisis.
However, there are potential flies in the ointment of this optimistic scenario. The first is the extent to which Nigerians will vote along ethnic and religious lines. The country is about half Christian, and the recent presidential campaigning appealed heavily to religious and ethnic identities. The second issue that could mire the electoral process is the role of money. Due to his access to government oil revenue Jonathan has far more funds than Buhari does. He may be able to “buy” an electoral victory as most Nigerians remain desperately poor and the country’s elites increasingly need money as oil revenue and the value of the Naira continue to fall. (However, in the past, Nigerian political figures have accepted payoffs without fulfilling their side of the bargain.) Finally, Buhari represents a real threat to those deeply mired in corruption. With an annual security budget of five to six billion dollars and an unimpressive track record against Boko Haram, the military would appear especially vulnerable to anti-corruption measures.
Under these circumstances, would the military in conjunction with parts of the current ruling party allow Buhari to become president? It was the military that ended Buhari’s twenty month tenure as military chief of state in 1985 largely because of his campaign against corruption. It may be worth remembering that in 1993, the military refused to allow Moshood Abiola to become president, despite his victory in Nigeria’s freest and most credible election (no official election results were ever released).
The Nigerian security services are much weaker now than they were in Abiola’s time. Still, they retain more coercive power than any other group of Nigeria, but only if they are united. That is a big ‘if.’
By John Campbell
Centre for Foreign Relations
**Jim Sanders wrote:
"But what if the political class no longer matters? Falling oil prices, rampant corruption, ineffective governance, and civil war in the northeast have joined forces to undermine “electoral process” as the framework through which popular will is expressed in Nigeria. Large rallies for Buhari suggest that a mass movement may be developing. Years of so-called democracy have failed ordinary Nigerians, and many of them may now see Buhari as a charismatic leader. His charisma derives from his asceticism. Possessing no Rolex, no expensive house or car, and no overseas property, he is everything that many members of the political class are not. He is its very antithesis. There is no reason to believe Buhari sees himself as a charismatic leader, but such figures often emerge in difficult times. Followers have a tendency to view such leaders as heroic, according to one scholar, and they engender commitment that is much more intense than that afforded other leaders. Historically, the dynamics of movements led by such leaders become extra-institutional. If Nigeria is headed in this direction, neither unity within the political class, nor electoral process will drive events."
**Avid Africa Watcher wrote:
"John, I’m skeptical of your assertion of an emerging elite political consensus in Nigeria — the so-called optimistic scenario. If anything, I think that the apparent rise of Buhari is more a manifestation of the PDP’s growing inability to bridge the country’s manifold divides, especially at the elite level. While this has opened the door to the opposition, it has also divided the country even further. Consequently, the elections are likely to produce a less uniform political landscape together with disputed results and controversy. Also, as you point out, the prospect of the PDP losing ground to the opposition, and potentially even ceding the all-important presidency, likely means it will have to fight even harder to win – whether by “buying” victory or other means. To my mind, the net effect of these factors will be less harmony, not more. But I hope that I am proved wrong.
"I will reserve comment on the ability of Buhari to enact real change until after the elections.
"Jim raises an interesting point about the rise of the Nigerian public. We’ve seen inklings of this at the beginning of 2012 and in response to the Boko Haram school girl kidnappings last year, and I think a strong case can be made that the public / civil society has gained political power since democracy was restored in 1999. It’ll be interesting to see how the public reacts to the elections and if and how this reaction influences politics going forward."