Long before the counting was complete, the inquest at Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign headquarters had begun. How could their candidate in the 28 March Presidential election have become the first incumbent since independence in 1960 to lose? And for many more Nigerians there was an equally pressing question: what could they now expect?
There is no easy consensus.
Jonathan’s opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, campaigned principally on the promise of change, tapping into the sense of popular fatigue and disappointment associated generally with the People’s Democratic Party, which had won all four elections since the end of military rule in 1999, and in particular with five years of President Jonathan. It was a campaign as much about what Nigerians did not want, as what they did.
Two events had come to symbolise the apparent impotence and inertia of the Jonathan administration, at home and abroad. These were the handling of the abduction of more than 200 school-girls from Chibok in April 2014, which spoke of a broader malaise in security and leadership; and allegations in 2013 by the then Central Bank Governor, Lamido Sanusi, that billions of dollars from oil earnings could not be accounted for, fuelling perceptions of a relaxed approach to corruption and governance.
Some advisers say President Jonathan’s difficulties were also in the detail, as well as the big picture. They say personal issues with Rotimi Amaechi, the Governor of Rivers State, were allowed to escalate into a major split within the influential Governors’ Forum, and the formation of a dissident faction within the ruling People’s Democratic Party just as Nigeria’s perennially divided opposition was contemplating a merger. It was this faction that later quit the PDP to help create for the first time a more or less national opposition political party, the All Progressives Congress, established in December 2013.
Other advisers point to critical failures in the management of oil and gas, which provides more than 95 percent of Nigeria’s export revenue. Existing indigenous players found themselves marginalised in favour of new, politically better connected rivals. These rivals benefited from controversial trading deals both to sell Nigerian crude and import refined products. But eventually they helped Jonathan much less, in terms of resources and support, than the damage those players his officials had side-lined were able to cause.
More significantly still, the administration alienated international oil companies that have good links to the political establishment in the US and UK. There were delays over the adoption of industry reform in the form of the perpetually stalled Petroleum Industry Bill, frequent changes in key personnel at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, and a failure to resolve underlying issues in oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, while rewarding former militia leaders with major security contracts.
Other leaders in Nigeria have in the past prevailed at the ballot box, sometimes with emphatic victories, notwithstanding their apparent unpopularity. Many politicians in Nigeria believe General Buhari, the new President-elect, would have won elections in 2007 but for massive, systematic and institutionalised rigging.
The critical factor, therefore, in the 2015 Presidential Election, was the conduct of the poll and in particular the use of technology in the registration of voters. The adoption of Permanent Voters Cards and Card Readers played a very significant part in preventing the inflation of numbers for those who voted; recorded figures for turn-out in 2015 were low compared with previous elections, and in some cases, very much lower, especially in Jonathan’s core States in the South-East and South-South. Overall turn-out was 47 percent, compared with 54 percent recorded in 2011 and 69 percent in 2003.
The same technology also helped deliver a greater level of transparency in the typically more earthy conduct of State Elections on 11 April, which confirmed a potentially awkward political and regional split between the North East and North West, firmly under the control of the APC, and the South South and South East, where the new ruling party, which won no seats at all in the National Assembly election on 28 March, again was a marginal force.
Key Jonathan aides had been aware of the PVC issue for several months. In January, Sambo Dasuki, the National Security Adviser, used an unprecedented speech in London explicitly to urge Ahmed Jega, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, to consider either relaxing the rules on PVCs or postponing the election to allow for their wider distribution. Privately, Presidency officials were furious: they believed that by publicly backing Jega into a corner, the NSA had made the prospect of a climbdown on the new technology much more difficult. Jega held firm on PVCs and eventually agreed a delay.
By the evening of 30 March, with half of Nigeria’s 36 states still to declare, officials in both the main parties knew that the figures were pointing to a Buhari victory. Some senior ministers were immediately reconciled to the likely result, saying it would prove historic for Nigeria and help transform Jonathan’s battered image to that of an international statesman. According to one progressive aide: “it was not the view of everyone, but we believed it would be far better to lose well than at that stage to try to win badly.”
But they also warned that the decision by the US and UK to intervene in the process, warning in a statement on 30 March of unspecified attempts to fix the numbers after polls had closed, helped only to polarise President Jonathan’s inner circle of advisers, and complicate efforts to defuse mounting tensions.
In an indication of such tensions, Godsday Orubebe, a former Minister for Niger Delta Affairs, on 31 March sought to disrupt the count, accusing Jega of bias, tribalism and irregularities in a 20-minute harangue broadcast live on television. Orubebe’s supporters, and there were many at the Presidency, hoped to trigger a crisis that would have led to a suspension of the count and new efforts both to shore up the numbers in Jonathan’s states and knock down those for Buhari.
Jega’s handling of the confrontation was masterful. He allowed Orubebe to shout himself hoarse, answered his points and urged him “as a statesman…to be careful about [his] public conduct.” Sources have indicated it was at this point that Jonathan decided to call General Buhari to congratulate him on his victory, pre-empting the final announcement by INEC but immediately distancing himself from any militants contemplating efforts to crash the process.
Jonathan himself before the election had pointed to his record on supporting democracy in Ivory Coast, Guinea and Mali. Despite scepticism from international players and the opposition, he had insisted he would do the same at home – and was proved to have stuck to his pledge.
It’s far from certain the 2015 election will prove the moment that broke the mould of Nigeria’s sterile, top-down, contractor politics. Buhari faces immense challenges, not the least of which will come from managing popular but undefined expectations for change, and the ambitions of leading players in the party, in a hugely difficult security environment and uncertain economic outlook. But the elections delivered by Attahiru Jega, and underwritten by President Jonathan, have given Buhari a platform of credibility and legitimacy, and a personal mandate, that none of his predecessors have possessed.
About the Author: Antony Goldman is Director of Promedia Consulting, which specialises in political and security risk in sub-Saharan Africa.
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