Nigeria elections approach amid economic distress and terror attacks

Nigeria is in the news again because of vicious attacks by the extremist jihadi group Boko Haram (“The Book is Sinful”) in the country’s Northeastern state of Borno.  Various reports give disputed accounts of the number of persons killed as high as 2,000. In addition, there have been suicide bombings which have killed many, with small girls as young as 10 acting as the perpetrators.  Some speculate that the girls used in these bombings may come from last year’s mass kidnapping in Chibok, also in Borno.

And into this mix now comes a national election, on Feb. 14.

Nigeria, with its population of 184 million, is the seventh largest country in the world.  It is the 13th largest oil producer, pumping two and a half billion barrels per day, with  proven reserves of 37 billion barrels and substantial production and reserves of natural gas also.  The vast majority of Nigeria’s other exports are products of mining, agriculture, and fisheries.

An economic system that disproportionately emphasizes this kind of export puts a country at the mercy of fluctuating world commodity prices. And that is happening to Nigeria and other oil-producing countries right now.  The worldwide tumble of oil prices may delight people in the United States who find that it now costs only half as much to fill up the family car as it did two years ago, but  it represents very bad news to those oil producing countries that are poor overall, such as Nigeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela. It also divides OPEC, the international association of oil-producing countries to which Nigeria belongs. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has refused to cut back oil production, the standard OPEC method of stabilizing prices.  This has left countries like Nigeria and Venezuela in a difficult situation.

In 2012 there were massive protests by students and labor union members when the Nigerian government eliminated subsidies on fuel. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan had to back off and partially rescind the cuts. There is still widespread dissatisfaction with corruption, which among other things is blamed for the fact that, in spite of the immense oil wealth, Nigeria’s refineries are in such a terrible state that it has to import fuel. The electrical grid is so unreliable that many enterprises have to rely on their own crude generators. And the inability of the government to put an end to the Boko Haram rebellion has many worried.

This year’s presidential election is shaping up to be a contest between the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party, and former military dictator (from 1983 to 1985) Muhammadu Buhari, running as the candidate of the five-party All Progressives Congress coalition.  Several other parties are not seen as having any chance of victory. One left-wing party, the Socialist Party of Nigeria, wants to run a candidate but was blocked by a ruling of the Independent National Electoral Commission. The Socialists have appealed.

Nigeria was created as a consolidated British colony in 1914. The British interest in the territory was originally commercial, but also included a desire to block French colonial expansion. The colony incorporated great diversity: In the north, a number of Muslim emirs were enlisted to continue ruling their formerly independent states as vassals of the British Empire, while in the South Christian missions made headway against existing religious systems, and commercial activity became more developed .  When Nigeria achieved independence in 1960, the first government was dominated by conservative northerners allied with British imperialism. In 1966, junior army officers from the South overthrew and killed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and several other northern leaders. Reprisals ensued and the situation developed into the unsuccessful effort to turn Southeastern Nigeria into the independent country of Biafra.   After the defeat of the Biafra secession, weak civilian governments alternated with military dictatorships, with the North-South divide never being overcome.

The All Progressives Congress presidential candidate in this year’s election, Buhari, was a major general and the governor of the Northeastern State, where the Boko Haram insurgency is now centered, when he took national power in a military coup in 1983.  His government was characterized by a push for austerity but also an import substitution model of economic development. Buhari’s presidency lasted less than two years when he was overthrown by another military coup. In 2011 he ran for president against Goodluck Jonathan but was heavily defeated. 

But this year, Johathan carries much baggage, so many see Buhari as having a chance of ousting him. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party had previously observed the practice of alternating its candidates between people from the Muslim North and people from the Christian South, but Jonathan’s re-election quest breaks with this and may antagonize northern voters. The failure of the Jonathan government to deal with either corruption or Boko Haram may lead some to seek, in a military man such as Buhari, a president willing and able to crush the revolt.  Buhari has spoken in favor of the Sharia law which is used in all of Northern Nigeria, but promises not to impose it nationwide.    

There is some doubt as to whether a proper election can be carried out in the disturbed state of the country at present.

Photo: Children displaced by Boko Haram attacks line up at a camp of internal displaced people in Yola, Nigeria.  |  AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.