What the Nigerian presidential election has to teach us about African politics

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Taking a comparative perspective, Co-editor Nic Cheeseman asks what lessons the Nigerian presidential election has for politicians in Kenya, and beyond. A strong opposition coalition, a weak government, an independent electoral commission and a large margin of victory are crucial, he argues, if elections are to facilitate a turn-over of power.

There was more bad luck for President Goodluck Jonathan on 31 March, as he was forced to concede defeat to Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) after losing the presidential election by over 2 million votes. Jonathan’s phone call to congratulate his rival – which initially did not get through due to the high volume of calls that the Buhari team were receiving – marked the first time that a sitting president has been defeated at the ballot box. The victory of the opposition has much to tell us about the conditions under which apparently all-powerful ruling parties can be beaten. So what are the key lessons for students of African politics and the continent’s political elite?

 Lesson one: A united opposition always stands a chance

The most obvious lesson from the Nigerian election is that opposition unity is critical if an established incumbent is to be defeated. In the Nigerian context, the APC’s success was rooted in the construction of a broad coalition that brought together a powerful alliance of leaders with established profiles and political networks in different parts of the country. This alliance was particularly effective because it integrated leaders that complemented each other’s strengths and minimised each other’s weaknesses.

In addition to Buhari’s northern following, the support of former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu and current Lagos government Babatunde Fashola – represented within the APC leadership by Buhari’s running mate, Yemi Osinbajo – empowered the party to do well in the South-West. This alliance was also significant because it combined Buhari’s reputation for responsible government and Tinubu’s considerable personal wealth, which made it possible for the APC to run an election campaign that was both well funded and credible.

The APC initially gained momentum following the defection of a number of governors and leading figures from the PDP, which weakened the position of the previously dominant ruling party. Significantly, the resulting coalition managed to negotiate the selection of its main office holders during party primaries held in November without suffering a major split. As a result – and in contrast to previous elections – the opposition did not fragment prior to the polls.

The implication of this for other opposition parties in Africa is clear: future electoral success will depend on building and maintaining a broad coalition. Take the case of Kenya. The defeat of President Daniel arap Moi and KANU in 2002 was grounded in the breadth and (temporary) unity of the NaRC alliance. By contrast, the decision of potential opposition allies to run on their own in future elections – Kalonzo Musyoka in 2007, Musalia Mudavadi in 2013 – made it considerably harder for the opposition to defeat the incumbent.

Lesson two: oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them

The second lesson to take from the Nigerian elections is that as much as effective oppositions win elections, governments lose them. Given the many advantages of incumbency enjoyed by most African governments in terms of influence over the media, access to funds, and the use of state resources, it is extremely difficult to defeat a well-performing leader that runs a good campaign. In the Nigerian context, this meant that the election remained Goodluck Jonathan’s to lose, despite the impressive campaign run by the APC. That he did so was largely the result of two main factors. First, the collapse of the oil price and the resulting period of economic decline impacted on ordinary Nigerians and the business community alike. In turn, this eroded any confidence in the economy that had been generated by the re-basing of GDP and the resulting announcement that the Nigeria’s economy had surpassed South Africa’s to become the largest on the continent.

The second key factor that undermined the PDP’s campaign was the president’s waning credibility. Since the 2011 election, the public image of President Goodluck Jonathan has been tarnished by a number of government failures, the most important of which have been economic decline, evidence of rising corruption, and the failure of the security forces to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency. Taken together with the relative unity of the opposition, and the savvy campaign waged by the APC, this combination of factors served to undermine turnout in the president’s home areas in the South-East and Middle-Belt and drive support towards Buhari in opposition strongholds such as the north and South-West of the country.

The problem for opposition parties in Africa is that ruling parties are typically more effective than the PDP has been over the last five years. Let us return to the Kenyan example. The problem for Raila Odinga and the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) is clear: the Jubilee Alliance is no PDP, and Uhuru Kenyatta is no Goodluck Jonathan. Both leaders have suffered damaging and at times embarrassing security problems, and both have endured serious corruption scandals within their governments, but the similarities end there. While President Jonathan has often appeared uncertain and diffident in public, President Kenyatta has – in most cases – developed an authoritative and statesmanlike tone that tends to breed confidence rather than concern. Combined with the political nous of Deputy President William Ruto, and the Jubilee Alliance’s willingness to use experienced foreign consultants to put together a slick election campaign, this means that President Kenyatta will prove considerably harder to beat than his Nigerian counterpart.

Lesson three: the importance of an independent electoral commission

The third important lesson that we can learn from Nigeria is the difference that a truly independent and brave chairman of the electoral commission can make to an election. To fully appreciate this point it is important to remember that Nigeria has held some of the worst elections in the world. The 2007 polls were so bad that some international observers concluded that they did not deserve to be called elections at all, and were better referred to as an “election-type event”.

One of the problems in 2007 was the weakness of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the failure of its Chairperson to defend the institutions integrity. Much has changed since then, and although INEC is not as independent as it could be – the president and not the chairman continues to appoint the resident electoral commissioners in each state – under the leadership of Attahiru Jega it has become a far more effective and reliable institution. And just as the Ghanaian electoral commission played an important role in facilitating democratization and political stability in Ghana under the leadership of Afari Gyan, Jega’s tenure has proved to be a game changer in Nigeria.

At a critical stage in the counting process, when it became clear that the PDP was headed for defeat, some desperate government leaders and activists accused Jega of political bias and “tribalism” on live television. But in the face of extreme pressure, Jega held firm and refused to be cowed. Few electoral commissioners on the continent had demonstrated such backbone, or been able to broadcast such authority. In Kenya, for example, the probity of commissioners has regularly been called into question – most recently by evidence of far-reaching corruption within the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission during the 2013 general election.

Lesson four: size matters 

The final lesson that can be taken from the Nigerian election is that size matters. Even with an effective electoral commission, elections in semi-democratic contexts such as Kenya and Nigeria are never flawless. Under these conditions, only a convincing defeat is sure to force the government from power. In other words, the size of the opposition’s lead matters. Only when the incumbent is so far behind that it becomes unfeasible to make up the difference with ballot box stuffing and vote tampering does a peaceful transfer of power become likely.

To understand why this was so significant in the case of Nigeria, it is important to realise that despite the victory of the APC the elections were far from clean. Evidence of irregularities in the counting process were noted in a number of areas, most notably in Rivers State, which has traditionally been part of the PDP’s heartlands, but became more hotly contested this time round after the Governor defected from the PDP to join the APC. Some irregularities were also noted in states that tended to vote for Buhari, but on balance it seems likely that the official results underestimate the magnitude of the opposition’s victory.

It was therefore critical that the gap between the two candidates was so large – over 2 million – that it was not possible to make up the difference by stuffing ballot boxes or manipulating the count without it becoming clear for the world to see. In the end, the size of the PDP’s defeat, along with the considerable domestic and international pressure on Jonathan to avoid any course of action likely to trigger ethnic or religious conflict, persuaded the president that it was time to go.

This political reality should already be well understood by opposition parties across Africa, which often allege electoral manipulation after losing close elections. To offer but one example, it was the small margin between the two main presidential candidates in the Kenyan election of 2007 that encouraged supporters of the government to manipulate the process to in order to prevent an opposition victory. The implication for the future is clear: if Raila Odinga is to one day capture the presidency he does not just need to win, he needs to win big.

The final lesson: What can Kenya teach Nigeria?

Of course, the rest of Africa also has many lessons to teach Nigeria. The new APC government is very much a broad multi-ethnic coalition not unlike the NaRC government that came to power in Kenya in 2002. And like NaRC, one of the major challenges facing President Buhari will be how to keep his coalition together. The Kenyan experience suggests that this requires two main areas of compromise: jobs and policies. On the job front, Buhari will need to make prominent positions available to leaders from the South-West, including close allies of Bola Tinubu, the “power behind the throne”. On the policies front, he will need to stay true to some of the core promises made in the APC’s manifesto, such as the commitment to urban renewal, a more equitable system of federalism, and building a stronger social security system.

Kenya also has much to teach Nigeria about the costs of failing to sustain a successful electoral coalition. The collapse of NaRC not only undermined political stability, it also put paid to the prospects of constitutional reform during that parliament and laid the foundations for the post-election violence of 2008. Many Nigerians are currently euphoric, celebrating the victory of democracy in a way reminiscent of Kenya in 2003, when opinion polls found that Kenyans were the most optimistic people in the world. But as Kenyans now know only too well, the defeat of KANU did not mark the end of the struggle for constitutional reform, but rather represented a new beginning. Democracy, much like Rome, cannot be built in a day.

This blog was originally a column for the Daily Nation, published on 11 April 2015.


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