Nigeria Votes – But Not Yet

Just hours ago, Nigeria’s Independent National Election Commission announced it was temporarily postponing the highly anticipated election that was to start today, giving only vague reasons related to “maintain[ing] the quality of our elections.”  This decision has drawn condemnation from both of the country’s two major parties and aroused anger from millions of voters who have waited, and in many case made significant personal sacrifices, to vote for their candidate of choice. And it creates the potential for unrest and uncertainty in what was supposed to be a major test for democracy in the country.

The now-postponed vote is literally Africa’s biggest election of the year. Nigeria, the most populous country on the continent (and 7th in the world), is deciding whether to keep incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari or replace him with former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Religion and other forms of identity divide Nigeria like no other country – nowhere else is there so large a population split evenly between Muslims and Christians, and the country’s 250 ethnic groups make it one of the world’s most diverse nations. Yet elections were expected to be tense but relatively peaceful, reflecting the progress made over the past 20 years in developing a working, but fragile, system of balancing societal differences.  The current delay may help the INEC guarantee the fairness of the poll, but may also increase simmering tensions.

Nigeria’s population is about evenly split between Muslims, mostly from the northern half of the country, and Christians, who occupy the south. This geographic and religious divide is only intensified by a number of other overlapping differences; of the country’s 250 ethnic groups (with even more languages), the three largest ones are the Hausa-Fulani (mainly Northern Muslims), the Igbo (mostly Southern Christians) and the Yoruba (southerners, split between the two religions).

On top of that, the north and south have significantly different legal systems; in a fairly extreme version of “states rights” most northern state governments enacted versions of Islamic sharia law (sometimes leading to violent conflicts with Christian minorities living in those states), while the southern states have not. And on top of THAT, because of the continued legacy of colonialism, which introduced different governments and levels of investment to different parts of the country, the north is significantly poorer than the south, a disparity that was only exacerbated when huge oil reserves were discovered in the southern region.

For decades, this volatile social mix was a recipe for chaos, as the country was rocked by a devastating civil war, a long succession of military coups and cancelled or overturned elections, massive corruption and economic turmoil.

And yet, despite all this, Nigeria turned things around before the turn of the century, and has now entered its 20th year of democracy. It’s developed a fairly stable two-party political system and seen several peaceful transfers of power. In doing so, Nigeria has not run away from its social divisions, but leaned into them: the country’s political system has developed an informal but important set of understandings to balance the various social divides, especially the religious/geographic one.

The basic understanding shared by Nigerian political parties and voters is that power will be shared roughly evenly between Muslim northerners and Christian southerners. The two main parties have generally had a Muslim atop one and a Christian leading the other (which party corresponds to which religion has actually flipped several times).   Voters have played along with the religious balancing as well – since democratizing 20 years ago, Nigeria has alternated between Christian and Muslim presidents without exception. This election may change that.

In US politics, presidential candidates often use their pick of running mate to expand their appeal by adding some missing trait to the ticket or “balancing out” some aspect of the candidate that potential supporters don’t like. George W. Bush, whose plain speak and good ol’ boy charm also left him vulnerable to charges that he wasn’t intellectually up to the job, chose a seasoned political insider, Dick Cheney, as his running mate. Barack Obama, a young, charismatic Senator who became the first black candidate with a real shot of winning, similarly chose an old white guy with decades of experience as his running mate (Hillary Clinton chose a younger white guy for similar reasons). And John McCain, a real person, chose a Saturday Night Live character as his VP candidate, just to spice things up.

In Nigeria, this logic meant that Muslim presidential candidates chose Christian VP running mates, and vice versa. Such was the case with President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim who was elected President in 2007 alongside Christian running mate Goodluck Jonathan. Yar’Adua tragically fell ill and eventually died in office, cutting short his term and leaving power to Jonathan. Many Nigerian Muslims felt shortchanged by this unfortunate serious of events, and partially for this reason, both presidential candidates this year are Muslims – the Muslim population feel that they missed out on part of their turn and seek to make it up.

Having two Muslims competing this time may lessen the risk of violence that has previously haunted elections in Nigeria. It also makes it harder to predict how either the Muslim or Christian populations will vote. Other issues also make prediction difficult: for example, President Buhari would normally enjoy an advantage by being an incumbent, but he himself was the first Nigerian candidate to defeat an incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. Since then, Buhari’s own health has been an issue, echoing Yar’Adua and potentially making voters nervous to reelect him.   Atiku, on the other hand, has faced corruption charges from his previous time as Vice President under another government, while Buhari has maintained an anti-corruption theme while in office.

Today’s postponement has only added to the uncertainty surrounding the vote.  Once it actually takes place, supposedly one week from today, this election may truly end up being a toss-up, but regardless of the victorious candidate, if it remains peaceful and relatively free, fair and credible, the Nigerian people will end up as the big winners of 2019.

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