L. to R.: Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters; Thierry Charlier / AFP / Getty Images

The real reason Nigeria should delay elections

Jonathan and Buhari do not offer credible options and lack the competence to lead the country

February 5, 2015 2:00AM ET

In a 2005 report, “Mapping Sub-Saharan Africa's Future,” the United States National Intelligence Council predicted the “outright collapse of Nigeria” within 15 years. At the time, many Nigerians, including then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, dismissed the report.

But as Nigerians go to the polls next week, the doomsday prediction of U.S. intelligence appears to be coming five years earlier than expected.

The vast majority of Nigerians distrust the political class. This is exacerbated by the pervasive misrule, incompetence, inordinate ambition and mediocrity that plague the country’s political landscape. The stakes in next month’s elections are high. And the outcome is going to test Nigeria’s continued existence as one state. If politicians refuse to play by the rules, amid a political atmosphere charged with bitterness, acrimony and intolerance, the elections could break apart Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s VUCA world

The insecurity created by the Islamist group Boko Haram poses a significant threat to the credibility of the polls. Elections are unlikely to take place in parts of northeastern Nigeria that are controlled by the group. On Jan. 22, Nigeria’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki called on the electoral commission to delay the vote, noting that nearly 30 million eligible voters are yet to receive voting cards. The fact that nearly half of the electorate had not received their voter cards less than three weeks before the elections means that the vote is bound to lack credibility. Nigeria’s opposition and the electoral commission have rejected the call.

Nigeria should delay the Feb. 14 presidential election but not for the reasons advanced by Dasuki. The two presidential candidates — Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his main rival, retired army Gen. Muhammadu Buhari — lack the necessary clout, competence and character to lead Nigeria at this critical moment in its history.

Nigeria’s sociopolitical milieu mirrors what Duke University researchers described as a VUCA world — characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. In this type of environment, the traditional skills of leadership are not enough. Instead, a major disruption in the country’s leadership dynamics is needed to force the political class to devise new ways of doing old things rather than recycle old ideas. While a relative newcomer to Nigeria’s political scene, Jonathan is a captive of the old order even more so than Buhari, who has been a major player in Nigerian politics since the 1970s.

Growing insecurity, rampant corruption and Jonathan’s tepid approach to governance have exposed his weakness. Politics is about perception, and among Nigerians he has created a perception that he is weak. This was exemplified by his administration’s failure to rescue more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram last April.

Nigeria is simply not ready for this election. The insecurity in the north of the country is bound to mar the election. More important, the two candidates do not offer credible options for Nigerians.

Unlike his predecessor Obasanjo, who had been a general in the army, Jonathan does not command the respect of top military brass. The Nigerian military has a long history of involvement in politics. And the rank and file still struggles to subordinate itself to civilian authority. Jonathan, a civilian leader with no military background, had a frosty relationship with the military, to the extent that some commanders refused to respect his orders. It is no surprise, then, that Dasuki blamed the failure to rescue the Chibok girls on the military, whom he called cowards.

Unlike Jonathan, Buhari, who briefly ruled the country in the 1980s after taking power in a military coup, enjoys the admiration of the military. Running his third presidential campaign, Buhari comes off as a spent force and has not offered any fresh ideas. Yet his ascendance to power through the ballot box has the potential to quell the security crises in the country. The famous War Against Indiscipline — which sought to promote public morality, civic responsibility and Nigerian nationalism — was one of the positive legacies of his 20-month tenure.

Lack of credibility

Nigeria appears to be teetering on the edge of the abyss. The National Human Rights Commission is worried that intemperate calls to arms from the two campaigns could lead to postelection violence. The commission and two U.S.-based election observers — the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute — called on the two candidates to refrain from making vitriolic statements and warned that the electoral commission is unprepared to oversee a credible poll. The election monitors noted incomplete distribution of permanent voter cards to eligible voters, reliance on voter card readers that have not been sufficiently tested and lack of voter education on how to use new technology.

Combined with Boko Haram’s campaign to annihilate Nigeria, the desperation to acquire or retain power could lead to violence on the scale not seen in Nigeria’s recent history.

Political violence in the country has the potential to degenerate into an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Regional and international leaders must work to prevent this. All indications are that Nigeria is simply not ready for these elections. The insecurity in the north of the country is bound to mar the voting. More important, the two major candidates do not offer credible options for Nigerians.

Jonathan’s re-election would guarantee the status quo: continued insecurity, uncertainty, corruption, unemployment, irregular power supply and capital flight. Buhari’s victory would not bring about any meaningful or fundamental change in the polity either. He might introduce a few policy changes to appear different. But he has yet to reconcile with his controversial past, including the $2.8 billion from oil revenue that disappeared when he was petroleum minister in 1978. Besides, many Nigerians still view him as a religious zealot. During his 20-months in power, he set the stage for the eventual enrollment of Nigeria into the Organization of Islamic Conference, desecrating the secular position of the multiethnic and multireligious country. For years, Buhari has unsuccessfully tried to erase this image. For example, he chose a prominent Lagos pastor, Tunde Bakare, as a running mate in his last presidential bid and opted to wear European-style suits to obscure his public persona. And he has accumulated so much political debt that paying it back would result in patronizing the same cabal that is hindering Nigeria’s progress.

No Nigerian presidential incumbent has lost an election. If Buhari wins, it will come as a surprise to Nigerians and may signal a major shift in the growth of Nigeria’s democracy. But even if a Buhari victory brought about a respite from the nefarious activities of Boko Haram, youths in the Niger Delta would be up in arms in solidarity with Jonathan, their defeated kinsman. Buhari’s marriage with the southwest would not last long.

Neither outcome will be good for Nigeria. Postponing the election is the only good way out of this dilemma.

Uchenna Ekwo is the president of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives, a New York–based media and policy think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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