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3 big things to know about Nigeria’s presidential elections

After a week-long delay, the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, is facing off against business leader Atiku Abubakar during a tenuous time for Nigeria’s economy and its security situation.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria, in October 2018.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria, in October 2018.
AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga, File
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Nigerian voters will go to the polls on Saturday to choose their president — that is, if the vote doesn’t get postponed again.

The election was originally supposed to be held last weekend. But mere hours before the polls were set to open, the country’s election commission announced it was postponing the vote for one week, citing logistical problems over the distribution of voting materials, the burning of election materials in alleged acts of sabotage, and the weather.

But the vote is expected to finally happen on February 23, and Nigerians still have a critical choice to make — whether they want to stick with the current government or opt for change with an opposition leader.

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), will face off against Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and wealthy business leader who is representing the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). (There’s also a slew of minor party candidates, but the election is really a contest between the two.)

Nigeria’s lagging economy and shaky security situation — due in part to the resurgent violence of militant groups such as Boko Haram — are among the issues dominating the race.

One major worry ahead of the election is whether the vote will be rigged. Both candidates blamed each other for the election delay, claiming the other was trying to seize an opportunity to manipulate the vote. Nigeria’s elections have also been marred by violence in the past, and while an expert told me last week that the country was “cautiously optimistic” about peaceful voting, the threat of conflict breaking out remains.

On top of all that, the one-week delay has led to worries over possible low voter turnout. Nigerians have to vote in the district where they’re registered, and those who traveled to cast their ballots last weekend may be unable or unmotivated to do so again.

Here’s a quick rundown of the key things to know about Saturday’s presidential election and why it matters.

Meet the two major candidates: Buhari and Atiku

Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party attends an election campaign rally.
Nigerian presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party attends an election campaign rally at the Ribadu Square in Yola, Nigeria, on February 14, 2019.
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

Lots of people are running for president, but only two seem to really have a chance: Buhari and Atiku Abubakar, whom most people just call “Atiku.”

Buhari is a former general who briefly ruled Nigeria in the early 1980s during a period of military dictatorship. He won a historic election in 2015 by promising to crack down on corruption and stamp out extremist groups such as Boko Haram.

The group gained international attention in 2014 after it abducted hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls but has terrorized and killed thousands and displaced at least 2 million people in the northeastern part of the country since 2009.

Buhari’s victory in 2015 marked the first time an opposition candidate denied an incumbent president a second term, a turning point for Nigerian democracy.

Buhari says he’ll take Nigeria to the “next level” if he’s elected to a second term, but his four years in office have been somewhat lackluster: He has failed to deliver on his biggest promises about corruption and security, and the economy has struggled during his tenure.

Many of Buhari’s critics also see him as being a bit checked out, especially since the 76-year-old has been absent for long stretches due to poor health. (There was even a conspiracy theory circulating that Buhari had died and been replaced by a body double, which he had to debunk.)

“Buhari’s tenure — most observers think it has not been a good four years for Nigeria,” Ken Opalo, an associate professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, told me. “He’s been unwell, he hasn’t been as bold as he had promised in terms of needed reforms that could push the Nigerian economy, and despite his personal record as a non-corrupt person, there’s definitely lots of corrupt people around him.”

Atiku is positioning himself as the alternative to Buhari on the economy, asking Nigerians if they’re better off now than four years ago. As a successful business leader, he has a record that appeals to those who hope he can be a potential job creator, and he’s embracing the slogan “get Nigeria working again.”

Atiku has vied for the presidency in the past — five times, to be exact. He’s also been dogged by allegations of corruption and has been banned from traveling to the US due to his alleged ties to corruption cases. (He received a temporary reprieve recently and was allowed to visit Washington, DC.)

Nigeria’s economy and security situation are big issues among voters

The Nigerian economy has struggled during Buhari’s tenure. The country slipped into a recession in 2016, and though the economy has rebounded in some areas, poverty and joblessness remain high. Nigeria had the worst-performing stock market in the world last year.

Buhari is promising more state-driven reforms and public investment, whereas Atiku is promoting his business acumen and advocating for more private sector initiatives, including privatizing Nigeria’s state-run oil corporation, which could shake up the oil-dependent economy.

Security problems also loom over the race. Buhari promised to uproot Boko Haram, and the terrorist group did lose a lot of its territory during his tenure, but the group and others like it are far from being eliminated.

Nigeria has also seen a recent uptick in violence. Boko Haram also splintered, giving birth to an ISIS-linked militant group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province. This group has staged multiple brazen attacks, including one on a Nigerian governor’s convoy this week near the border with Cameroon.

The central part of Nigeria is also becoming mired in clashes between farmers and herders over land for grazing; statics from Amnesty International say the conflict claimed more than 3,600 lives last year.

Regional and identity politics are also important factors in Nigeria’s election. Atiku and Buhari are both Muslims from the north of the country, and they’ve managed to form political alliances with other regions — Buhari with the southwest and Atiku with the southeast — to try to gain more support.

There are concerns over whether the elections will be free and fair

People holding a banner that reads “NBA must act now” protest the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, in Abuja, Nigeria,
People protest the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, in Abuja, Nigeria, on January 28, 2019.
AP Photo

It’s not really clear who is leading the race right now, but experts say Buhari, as the incumbent, is likely to have an edge.

There are also widespread fears that the election will be rigged.

Nigeria’s elections have been rigged in the past — that’s why Buhari’s win in 2015 seemed so remarkable. Atiku’s opposition party, PDP, has alleged wrongdoing, though Buhari has insisted he’s upholding free and fair elections.

Both Buhari and Atiku seized on the election postponement last week to insinuate the other was trying to find a way to swing the vote in his favor. Buhari said Atiku was trying to slow his momentum; Atiku said the election commission postponed the vote to create “the space to perfect their rigging plans.”

Idayat Hassan, who works at the Centre for Democracy and Development, a think tank in Abuja, told the BBC that it was unlikely the one-week delay would be enough to allow for anything major to happen, and that includes in influencing the outcome of the vote. But that doesn’t mean the delay won’t have an effect: It could tamp down voter turnout, rile up some voters who blame one party or another for the delays, or undermine confidence in the final results.

Worries of rigging persist for other reasons. In January, weeks before the election, Buhari suspended the top judge on Nigeria’s Supreme Court over his alleged failure to declare some foreign assets. The suspended judge would have been in charge of ruling over any election-related disputes. But many critics — including Atiku — called the move anti-democratic.

Patrick Ukata, a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington, said he had a sense that Atiku would win if the elections were free and fair. “No one in their right mind would vote for more of the same,” Ukata told me last Friday.

A rigged election could also potentially be dangerous. The 2015 election, which Buhari won as the opposition candidate, was largely peaceful — but in 2011, an estimated 800 people died in post-election violence.

Experts I spoke to said sporadic violence is always a risk, especially on the local level, but conflict on a national scale seems unlikely. For one, Atiku and Buhari are both from the same region, religion, and ethnic group, which makes it less likely that anger over the elections will escalate into sectarian conflict.

Western governments, including the US, have encouraged the candidates to embrace the results, whatever the outcome. A US State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that the United States was encouraging all Nigerians to remain calm “as the electoral commission finalizes its electoral preparations.”

“We emphasize the importance of continuing to maintain the safety of election personnel and the integrity of all election materials. And we are confident that the delay in voting will not sway the commitment of the Nigerian people to free, transparent, and peaceful elections,” deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said.

Ukata said that despite the delay, the country has remained calm. But, as he told me last week, the “expectation of violence is always there.”

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