Over 84 million eligible Nigerian voters were set to go to the polls on Saturday. But, a mere five hours before voting was set to commence, the country’s election commission decided to postpone the vote, citing logistical challenges. The February 16 general elections—for president and National Assembly members—and the March 2 state-level elections have been pushed back a week, to be held on February 23 and March 9 respectively. Among the 73 presidential candidates, incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar are the top two contenders. As Africa’s most populous country with its biggest economy and democracy, Nigeria is a bellwether for the continent and these elections will be widely watched by the region and international community. USIP’s Oge Onubogu, Chris Kwaja and Aly Verjee look at why these elections matter, security challenges surrounding the polls, and how the U.S. can support Nigeria beyond the elections.

A man votes at a polling station in Kano, Nigeria, March 28, 2015. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
A man votes at a polling station in Kano, Nigeria, March 28, 2015. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)

Why do these elections in Nigeria matter?

Onubogu: Nigeria’s 2015 national elections set an important precedent for democratic development in the country and raised voters’ expectations of government performance. The results of those elections were acknowledged globally, not just because they led to the country’s first-ever peaceful transition of power to an opposition candidate, but also because the results overwhelmingly reflected the choices of the voters. Many Nigerians expect to see further democratic progress in 2019, including a credible electoral process.

Citizens will be voting in these elections 20 years after the restoration of multiparty rule in Nigeria, which represents the longest stretch of uninterrupted civilian governance in the country’s history. Since the transition in 1999 from 15 years of military rule, Nigeria has made major strides in its democratic development.

While the campaigns of the two leading presidential candidates, incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, have dominated the media and popular narratives about the elections, the 2019 elections are not entirely about them. With 84 million registered voters and 91 political parties, these elections are by far the largest in Nigeria’s political history. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), there are more than 23,000 candidates vying for elected positions in both the national and state elections. While a weak party system remains a challenge, the influx of new candidates and new ideas in the political arena creates opportunities to continue to improve Nigeria’s political system and strengthen the country’s democracy in the years to come.

What security challenges do the elections face and what can be done?

Kwaja: Nigeria has a long history of electoral violence. Inter-agency coordination between INEC and security agencies is central to guaranteeing credible and peaceful elections. Though INEC has the primary responsibility for the conduct of elections, weak coordination and synergy with security agencies, particularly the police, has been a major obstacle to election security. In the run up to the vote, a climate of insecurity still hovers over the electoral process.

The biggest challenges remain the internal displacements that affect over two million people due to the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in the north east; the conflicts between farmers and pastoralists in the north central region; banditry in the north west regions, as well as hate speech along political, ethnic and religious lines.

For many citizens, the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee on Election Security—which represents INEC’s attempt to improve the coordination of election security—has a duty to address these security challenges so that there can be credible and peaceful elections. There is a strong conviction that a neutral INEC, in concert with professional security agencies, could effectively protect the millions of registered citizens as they cast their votes in 120,000 polling units across the country.

What electoral management and political challenges do these elections face?

Verjee: Nigeria’s INEC has repeatedly assured citizens, contestants and observers that it is ready to administer credible polls. Since the last elections, technological innovations have been introduced to further safeguard the integrity of the process; for example, more systematic use of the voter card readers should further reduce any possibility of multiple voting.

But technology can only take the elections so far. For example, although the electoral commission has the technical ability to transmit polling results electronically, electoral results will continue to be transmitted on paper results forms because enabling legislation is not in place. Consequently, the expectation that results will emerge quickly may therefore be disappointed, and any vacuum in information could quickly be filled by rumors.

Both leading presidential candidates feel confident in their chances of victory. But someone must lose, and it is unclear whether either side is willing to accept results that show its defeat. Because of the scale of the electoral process, there are likely to be some electoral irregularities, which contestants may point to as evidence that they have been wronged. It will be critical for INEC to authoritatively address the deficiencies that may arise on Election Day and during the processing of results and withstand any undue pressure that may be exerted on the commission and its leadership.

How should the United States support Nigeria beyond the elections?

Onubogu: The run-up to these elections has been tense and the prospects of electoral violence are real. The recent unconstitutional suspension of Chief justice Walter Onnoghen—who would have served as the principal mediator on election disputes—was met with criticism from the international community and protests by civil society. Repeated examples of careless public statements by politicians are heightening the risks of violence. The dangers of public dissemination of disinformation and hate speech by politicians and parties go beyond inciting electoral violence—they also pose a threat to reconciliation after the elections, as well as longer-term peacebuilding efforts.

As Africa’s most populous nation and a regional powerhouse, the stakes are high in these elections. A credible electoral process will enhance citizen confidence in democratic governance. There should be senior-level U.S. government engagement and consistent messaging emphasizing a shared commitment to credible elections and a peaceful Nigeria. The U.S. and all stakeholders with potential influence on Nigeria’s political leaders must clearly convey expectations that political parties must respect the different peace pacts that they have signed and follow the appropriate legal processes if there is a dispute after the vote. As a strategic ally in the fight against extremism, the U.S. should strengthen its diplomatic engagement in Nigeria in the immediate aftermath of the elections, as the polls will be tightly contested.

It is in the interest of the U.S. and the international community to continue to support Nigeria’s democratic progress beyond these elections. Regardless of which party wins the national elections or who comes out on top in the state elections, Nigeria will continue to grapple with widespread insecurity and the violence that plagues many of its communities. These unresolved conflicts have the potential to undermine any government that emerges after the elections. Beyond the vote, such conflicts will require continued U.S. attention and engagement.

Oge Onubogu is a senior program officer for Africa programs at USIP. Chris Kwaja is a USIP senior advisor and a senior lecturer and researcher at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola, Nigeria. Aly Verjee is a visiting expert at USIP.

Read their USIP Special Report on the risks of electoral violence in Nigeria.

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