In northern Nigeria and bordering countries, a regional offensive is underway against the ruthless Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. The campaign comes in the midst of a postponed election and a tightly contested presidential race.
After a six week delay, Nigerians will head to the polls Saturday to vote in presidential and national assembly elections. The security environment in northern Nigeria has improved over the last six weeks, yet Boko Haram still has both means and motive to disrupt and discredit the electoral process. This danger is particularly strong in Northeastern Nigeria where the militant group is trying to establish an ‘Islamic Caliphate’ under Sharia law.
Conducting elections amid a violent insurgency is challenging enough, but Nigeria’s situation is further complicated by the possibility of post-electoral violence. In the wake of Nigeria’s last presidential and national assembly elections in 2011, rioting by those dissatisfied by the results left more than 800 people dead. And tensions are high once again.
This year’s presidential contest is extremely close. While both the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, and the main opposition leader, General Muhhamadu Buhari, have signed a peace agreement, observers remain concerned about how their political supporters will react once the election results are known.
On Monday, a political rally of General Buhari’s supporters escalated to violence. Participants slashed President Jonathan’s posters and hurled rocks at his campaign office in Kaduna, a city in the North that was an epicenter of violence in the previous election between President Jonathan and General Buhari. The stakes are even higher this cycle.
Despite the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission’s (INEC) efforts to eliminate opportunities to manipulate or discredit polling processes, the system is not airtight. Many Nigerians remain skeptical of a new voter ID card system implemented for the first time this year. And even if international observers deem the processes free, fair and credible, perceptions on the ground could be quite different, possibly igniting demonstrations or, worse, targeted violence.
Also, if Nigerians in the Northeast do not feel safe enough to vote, a large portion of the electorate could be effectively disenfranchised. General Buhari is relying on significant support from the North to secure a presidential victory, and if his supporters are unable to vote, the final results may not reflect the true will of the people.
For Nigeria, this is a watershed moment—for national security, for the economy and for democratic governance. The West African country is an anchor in the region. It boasts the region’s largest population (about 170 million people), serves as a cultural driver, and pushes Africa’s economic progress. Yet Nigeria is plagued with severe corruption, violent Islamist terrorists and severe economic disparity.
No matter which candidate prevails at the polls, the Nigerian people and the country’s political elites must remain committed to respecting the democratic process. Otherwise, the country cannot move forward.
Some Nigerians, primarily in the North, will literally risk their lives to vote on Saturday. It is incumbent upon the rest of the country to honor their courage by abiding by the rules of democracy. Accepting the verdict of the ballot box is an essential step toward proving the fourth Republic of Nigeria has moved beyond the ruthless tactics of the past, that it seeks to work on behalf of all Nigerians, not just those with a stake at political power.
Boko Haram will be fully defeated only when all Nigerians can peacefully voice their opinions and economic advantage is not only limited to those with political advantages.