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Even as Boko Haram rages, local politics will determine Nigeria presidency

Analysis: How military fares against insurgents unlikely to factor in most voters minds as Goodluck Jonathan runs again

ABUJA, Nigeria — The day after a suicide bomber disguised as a student infiltrated a boys school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Potiskum and killed 48 people, President Goodluck Jonathan stood before a public square in the capital, Abuja, and declared he would stand for a second term in office.

While his opponents criticized him for declaring his candidacy so soon after a bloody attack, it seemed almost inevitable that Jonathan’s announcement would coincide with violence.

The Boko Haram insurgency, which is thought to be behind the school bombing, is making nearly daily incursions against civilians and military units deployed to stop it in the country’s remote northeast.

The insurgent group made international headlines last April when it abducted over 200 girls from a school in the town of Chibok. Since then, Boko Haram has overrun towns, chasing out the Nigerian military and declaring a caliphate.

The violence shows no sign of abating before the February 2015 election.

But analysts say the question of who runs Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation won’t be decided by military successes in the country’s northeast.

Instead, voters are likely to cast their ballots based where a candidate is from, what party they belong to and whether he or she prays in a church or a mosque.

“These issues may continue up to the elections and that, in a sense, will really set aside the key issue, which is how well has this government performed so far, does it deserve a second term by its records and performance, or should a new formation be given the opportunity to exercise power?” said Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy & Development.

Jonathan served as a vice-president under President Umaru Yar'Adua, who died in office in 2010. Jonathan then finished out Yar'Adua’s term, and was elected to full term in 2011.

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s remote northeast was falling apart.

The Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009 after the group’s founder died in police custody, and it was ratcheted up with attacks on villages and police stations in subsequent years.

In 2011, the group claimed responsibility for bombing United Nations offices in the capital Abuja.

Last year, the government imposed a state of emergency over the three northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, where the school attack happened.

After the kidnapping of the Chibok girls last April, Jonathan was accused of taking a lackadaisical approach to the abduction by protesters who rallied in the streets of the capital and on social media under the banner of #bringbackourgirls.

But the government has recently made attempts to get the girls back. Last month, rumors flew in the press that government negotiators would get the girls within days. The government also announced that they had negotiated a ceasefire with representatives of the group in neighboring Chad.

But in a recent video Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, denied the claims of a ceasefire. In another video, Shekau claimed the kidnapped girls had been married off.

Boko Haram violence and the fate of the Chibok girls still routinely makes the front page of newspapers in Nigeria. But voters will probably be thinking of other things when they head to the polls on February 14 of next year.

“When we look at Chibok and #bringbackourgirls, it’s gotten a lot of international attention,” said Thomas Hansen, a senior analyst at the consulting firm Control Risks. “In terms of whether or not it’s going to swing the election to Nigeria, it’s not completely clear because ethnic sentiments and local political dynamics are more important drivers of voter behavior.”

Running concurrent to the presidential elections are legislative and governorship elections, which bring with them their own dynamics, Hansen said.

Jonathan is running under the banner of the People’s Democratic Party, which has held the presidency since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

A newly formed coalition of opposition parties called the All Progressives Congress is expected to present a formidable challenge to the PDP, particularly if it chooses a candidate from the country’s predominantly Muslim north, where Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-producing south, has less support.

But even after the ballots are cast, the fight may not be over. Polls are unlikely to be held in parts of the northeast that remain insecure.

Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, said that invites the possibility of a lawsuit over the election’s outcome.

“If for some reason you have a significant population of the country unable to cast their votes, then it would the raise the issue of whether whoever is declared as winner satisfies the constitutional requirement of spread of votes across the country,” said Nwankwo. Nigeria’s constitution requires the winning candidate win 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the 36 states.

“It also would raise the question, even if someone was to be declared president, whether he has the legitimacy to assume that office,” said Nwankwo.

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