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Vol 56 No 8

Published 17th April 2015


'No condition is permanent'

The credibility of the election and transition breaks the political mould and opens up the possibility of radical change

One of President Goodluck Jonathan's campaign advisors had it all figured out a few weeks before the presidential election on 28 March. 'Nigerian elections are all about regional loyalties and identities, religious and otherwise', he explained, stretching out a map of the country on the table. 'Our man,' said the advisor, who hailed from the Niger Delta, 'is going to win big in the South-South and the south-east, get all the Christian votes in the Middle Belt and the north – and there are more there than you think – and of course those sophisticated south-westerners will never vote for an austere Muslim like Buhari.'

Nigeria Presidential and Gubernatorial Elections

As the trucks in Lagos say, 'No condition is permanent'. Thanks to the depth of the country's security and financial crises, together with smart campaigning by the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), millions of southerners dropped their reservations about Muhammadu Buhari and backed him in droves (AC Vol 56 No 7, A moment of truth for the General). Middle Belt and northern Christians were so concerned about Jonathan's security failures that many defied stereotypical allegiances and voted for Buhari and the APC. 

Jonathan did sweep the South-South and south-east, although even there, pockets of dissent emerged. However, the identity politics argument of Jonathan's advisors failed spectacularly on the ground. From its position as the natural party of government, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) has been reduced to a regional rump, with near 100% support, at least in declared results, in the South-South and south-east but running second to the APC almost everywhere else.

Given that Jonathan still won 12.8 million votes to Buhari's 15.4 mn., the PDP remains in business, but it will play second fiddle across much of the country. Nigeria still has two parties with a national presence, although PDP barons have to make some tough decisions in the months ahead. A weak opposition could be as disastrous as an overbearing ruling party.

Both main parties claimed their opponents had used rigging and violence in their bailiwicks. Our correspondents and election monitors saw plenty of breaches of electoral law, beatings and the victims of a few shootings. Yet the fraud, rigging and violence distorted the election result far less than in any previous poll. These were Nigeria's most credible elections so far. Combined with Jonathan's speedy concession of defeat on 31 March, that has lifted the national mood.

It opens a new political era. The first part of that is political mobilisation: what changed this time was the organisation of a national opposition alliance that urged its supporters to register to vote, to pick up their voters' cards and then give up almost a day to get accredited by the biometric card readers and cast their votes.

The second part was technology which greatly reduced the possibility of inflating the electoral register, voter impersonation and other fraud (see Feature, Mending fences). This technology also makes it far easier to identify voting patterns accurately. Early assessments suggest there have been some important changes in political mobilisation. The simplistic story of north-south, Christian-Muslim splits, which international media reports overstated and PDP campaigning deliberately encouraged (chummy and defensive in the south; first negligent and then ham-fisted in the north) is not really accurate. 

Buhari enjoyed a huge unitary vote-bank in the majority-Muslim north-west which delivered nearly half of his winning votes. Yet all over the country, voters expressed some preference for change. Nationwide, the swing to the APC averaged 13.6%, compared to the 2011 results, while even the heavily disputed results in Jonathan's home base of the Niger Delta swung 6% to the APC.  

Nowhere is the lesson clearer than in the north-central or Middle Belt. Historically, much of this region defined its political identity in opposition to the mainstream currents in the wider north. That is, many small ethnic groups in the region were evangelised by Christian missionaries and lived alongside Muslim communities on the frontiers of the 19th century Fulani jihad.

A spate of communal conflicts in recent years sharpened some of those fault-lines, particularly in Plateau State and also Nasarawa and Benue. In others, communities coexist peacefully. However this year, the region showed the largest swing of any to the APC, 22.5%. Buhari won in majority Christian Benue and made a creditable showing (429,140 to 549,615) in bitterly divided, Christian-ruled Plateau. The APC won the state governorship on 11 April, in part because of the unpopularity of Governor Jonah Jang, a dedicated and divisive ally of Jonathan's (AC Vol 50 No 3, Why Jos burned).

This reflects three dynamics. Firstly, a gradual demystification of political mobilisation and an increased public debate over performance and leadership, rather than purely identity issues, as Middle Belt communities have felt the cost of the PDP government's failure to manage security. Secondly, the resurgence of other long-term political dynamics. The Benue-centred United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) of the First Republic, for example, was strongly allied to Chief Obafemi Awolowo's Action Group and its alliance with the south-western heirs to the AG tradition continues through into the APC. 

Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, the region's PDP vote suffered from the contagious odium of the party's government in many states. In both Benue and Plateau, many voters and opinion-leaders expressed a desire to punish the party for what is seen locally as a monopolisation of power by the states' long-incumbent governors. Meanwhile in Kogi, Buhari's large win seems to reflect his historic popularity, which was previously masked by the PDP state government's ability to dominate elections. 

One of the most interesting divergences in the electoral landscape is between states where old-established patterns of mass mobilisation held and those where the picture was more fractured. This division can be clearly seen between 'consensus' states, such as Jigawa, Katsina (APC) and Enugu (PDP), where no polling-station irregularities at all were reported, and those more contested states where numerous elections were disrupted, such as Rivers, Imo (PDP) and Kaduna (APC).  

Unreported irregularities may have occurred in the former states: for example, there was a picture of what looked like extremely underage voting in a northern polling-station on election day. Yet the lack of reports of such violations suggests a consensus between voters, party agents, administrators and political authorities to support one candidate en masse, which has held true through most elections. The large number of polling-station results cancelled in others, however, shows states where national politics is mirrored in hotly contested local rivalries, which may influence voters beyond party affiliation. 

One of the strongest consensus regions was the south-east but even here, things changed significantly. The PDP's eastern vote-bank in 2011 saw recorded turnout percentages in the mid-70s; this year, the Independent National Electoral Commission shows the average at 37.5%. Most of those votes were cast for Jonathan, thanks in part to defensive campaigning and advocacy by local figures who were vocal in denouncing those who chose to support the APC. South-eastern PDP activists labelled the APC as a reincarnation of the northern-Yoruba alliance which defeated Biafra in the 1967-70 civil war, led by a serving officer in that army – Gen. (Retired) Buhari. 

After the state elections on 11 April, several politicians pointed out that the new electoral map shows that the PDP controls all those present-day states which make up the old secessionist region of Biafra while the APC controls the rest, the Federal side in the war. How much that will mean to a new generation of voters, growing up 50 years after that devastating conflict, will depend on the talent and sense of responsibility of local politicians.

Electoral tactics in the south-east proved highly divisive. Negative campaigning meant that even the highest-profile APC candidates failed to get elected, such as former Anambra Governor Chris Ngige, contesting for Anambra Central's Senate seat. Meanwhile, PDP legislators largely bucked the national trend, with men such as the former Deputy Senate President and political veteran Ike Ekweremadu returned with large majorities. This unitary support now leaves the south-eastern political establishment with a headache. With a north-western President-elect and a south-western Vice-President, the south-east should have bagged the Senate presidency, the country's third most important office, under the 'zoning' rule for the regional distribution of top political offices. There is now no APC Senator from the south-east to take it: expect some energetic floor-crossing acrobatics. 

Conversely, the south-eastern and Igbo-speaking votes did show their importance in Lagos, the most vigorous and cosmopolitan city in the country, perhaps in Africa. The poll shows the tension between the city's role as a Yoruba heartland and as the national commercial capital. The APC party machine, led by former Lagos Governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, signally failed to deliver a huge vote, with only 1.67 million of 5.82 million registered electors turning out. In the event, Lagos contributed only 160,133 votes to Buhari's national majority, fewer than tiny Kwara.

That's all the more remarkable, given that supporters of Bola Tinubu – a ruthless deal-maker ranking with the likes of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley – claim he was the presiding genius behind the APC alliance. Unquestionably, Tinubu's ability to spot bright young political talent and his overwhelming influence on the Lagos street shaped the alliance with Buhari's supporters from the north. Yet the two men could hardly be more different in political style or substance, and there are already rumblings between them and their acolytes. 

Activists offer various reasons for the low turnout in Lagos: general apathy towards national politics in a city geared to commerce; fear of insecurity after the PDP-funded O'odua People's Congress militia staged violent street demonstrations (AC Vol 41 No 5, In God's name); the high number of Lagos-registered electors who travelled to homes elsewhere amid fears of a prolonged election crisis; public disenchantment with Tinubu's long and ubiquitous shadow. One thing it does prove is the shattering of the position of Lagos as an opposition block vote opposed to the national centre and mobilised around accelerated development and Yoruba nationalism. The OPC, previously footsoldiers of ethno-nationalist opposition to Federal power in the 1990s and 2000s, now works for the PDP. Most significantly, three of the five PDP candidates who beat APC contenders to represent the state in the national House of Representatives were non-Yoruba: two Igbo and one from Delta State.

So, Lagos's traditional political elites have belatedly woken up to the power of the large non-Yoruba communities in their city. In a ham-fisted attempt to bring the Igbo people into line with the APC before the gubernatorial election, Lagos's Oba (King) Rilwan Akiolu summoned Igbo leaders for a lecture replete with spiritual threats in which he ordered them to support the APC or face 'death inside the water'. It seemed that Oba Akiolu feared that the APC's lacklustre candidate, Akinwunmi Ambode, chosen by Tinubu, could lose to the PDP's slicker Olujimi Kolawole Agbaje, who had established a sizeable independent following.

Akiolu's crass intervention had exactly the opposite effect to that intended, with video of the harangue widely circulated, arousing anger from Igbos and other non-indigenous Lagosians alike. Tinubu and the party were forced to distance themselves from the Oba's rant. It undermined some of the most progressive elements in the APC, whose national manifesto speaks of the need to tackle the perennially contentious divisions between 'indigenes' and 'settlers' across Nigeria and to break down ethnic prejudice. Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi, whose defection from the PDP got the APC off to a flying start in 2013, was one of the first governors to insist that all social and economic services provided  by the Rivers State government would be available to all residents, regardless of their state of origin.

Akiolu's intervention proved especially damaging as non-indigenes – not just Igbos, Deltans and northerners but non-Lagosian Yorubas, as well as those of Beninese extraction – far outnumber 'original' Lagosians: elections cannot be won without their support. Accordingly, the PDP's Agbaje ran Ambode extremely close, despite the national trend in favour of the APC.

Despite stronger political mobilisation and better electoral technology, some statistical anomalies stand out. The total recorded vote was 28,496,841 in a country which the United Nations and others estimate to have a population of more than 170 million. Even if half are minors, that still leaves 56.6 million of the supposed adult population missing from the polling queues, almost twice the number who voted. Perhaps the new government will take a hard look at the accuracy of the census, well ahead of the next national elections due in 2019.

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