Africa’s first presidential election of the year may be its most important as the continent’s most populous country and its largest economy and oil producer selects its leader for the next 4 years. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari of the All People’s Congress faces leading rival Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party, as well as 30 other presidential hopefuls in the first round of voting in February.
Security will be a key issue on voters’ minds. Buhari won elections in 2015 on a platform that he could end the Boko Haram insurgency. While the number of attacks and fatalities linked to Boko Haram has declined since a peak in 2015, Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA), remain active in the northeast. In 2018, these groups were associated with 483 violent events and 2,297 deaths in the country, contributing to the internal displacement of nearly 2 million Nigerians.
In addition to the militant Islamist group threat in the north, Nigeria is facing security challenges involving growing farmer-herder violence, restiveness among segments of the country’s minority Shiite population, separatist tensions in the southeast, unresolved grievances in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, and growing criminal violence in Nigeria’s rapidly expanding urban areas. Whichever candidate emerges victorious, he will need to devise and sustain alternative approaches in these hotspots where government presence is often lacking and trust in the security services is low.
The 2019 presidential election—the sixth since the end of military rule in 1999—will likewise measure whether Nigeria can maintain the steady improvement in the transparency and credibility of its electoral process. The 2015 elections facilitated Nigeria’s first democratic transfer of presidential power between candidates of opposing political parties. This progress has been greatly facilitated by the active participation of civil society groups assisting with voter registration and maintaining parallel vote counts. This also reflects the heightened expectations of Nigeria’s expanding and increasingly educated youth and middle-class population. President Buhari’s decision to suspend Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen three weeks before the election pending charges that he had failed to declare his assets, consequently, has generated extensive scrutiny.
While violence around both national and state-level elections remains a concern, significant improvements have been realized since the 2011 polls when an estimated 800 Nigerians died in post-election–related violence. How the 2019 elections are managed will demonstrate just how much progress has been made. A process that is seen as fair and transparent will empower the next Nigerian leader with the legitimacy needed to take action on Nigeria’s serious challenges.