It is common to hear policy makers, development experts and pundits talk about the need to “build strong institutions” in Africa as the solution to governance challenges without quite understanding what processes building or modifying these “institutions” entail. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their 2012 tour de force, Why Nations Fail, provide a compelling explanation of how extractive or inclusive institutions emerge and determine societies’ political stability and economic prosperity. Their retrospective analysis shows how we are often unaware of this institutional change as it occurs. In Nigeria, the cloud of uncertainty around its forthcoming elections on March 28 is indicative of a process whose outcome will fundamentally alter its political system with implications for the rest of the African continent.
The sudden postponement of the general elections initially scheduled for February 14 and 28 jolted many to the realisation that it would be no ordinary democratic transition. However, to any careful observer, it was evident right from the game-changing emergence of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013 that these elections would be historic. For the first time the major opposition interests were able to unite under the single objective of unseating the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
What reinforces APC’s historic emergence is its cohesiveness, drawing strength and membership, from a fractured PDP. More dramatic is that in December 2014, the APC selected, from among four candidates, its presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, in a credible, transparent and competitive party primary televised across the country. Simultaneously, President Goodluck Jonathan was unilaterally endorsed in a tightly controlled PDP convention flanked by outgoing state governors. It was a stark contrast between exciting competition on one hand, and a militaristic imposition on the other.
The lasting impact of these divergent party primaries on the psyche of many Nigerians heralded the steady build-up of APC’s strength and popularity even in the traditional strongholds of the President, Goodluck Jonathan. The tactical selection of a law professor, Yemi Osinbajo as vice presidential candidate, and the presence of youthful governors with reformist credentials – including Babatunde Fashola, the governor who “tamed” Lagos, the most unruly city in Africa; Rotimi Amaechi, the ebullient governor of the oil-rich Rivers State; and Rabiu Kwankwaso, whose visible efforts led to the infrastructural rejuvenation of the North’s economic hub, Kano – have given the opposition a certain vigour lacking in previous incarnations. Opinion polls and election forecasts point to a neck-and-neck support for both parties. Since the postponement of the polls, forecasts such as those by the Eurasia Group point to an outright defeat of the incumbent, Jonathan. The prospect of the PDP’s defeat is unprecedented in Nigeria where the ruling party usually coasts to victory.
It is critical to understand that the PDP is beyond a mere political party, it is an institution. As the platform on which Nigeria democratised in 1999, it has controlled the levers of power, the taps of prosperity and moulded electoral politics in its image since the transition to electoral rule. Its logo of an umbrella symbolises its erstwhile accommodation of diverse elite interests – military, veteran politicians, local and foreign business interests and regional power brokers – in Nigeria’s winner-takes-all political system.
As Africa’s largest oil producer, the government relies on oil rents for almost 70% of budgetary revenue, and the PDP has controlled the government over a period of the highest global prices in history from 2003. These oil revenues created what Michael Ross describes as a “rentier effect”. By obviating the need to tax the population and insulating political leaders from accountability, oil rents accruing to the government are used to perpetuate rulers or in Nigeria’s case, the ruling party in power by providing funds to buy political support. With such a formidable political machinery and unlimited resource base, the PDP has revelled in power unchecked, and has institutionalised a political culture of impunity that has filtered through Nigerian society. Once it boasted that it would rule for 60 years.
Over time, the party’s ability to accommodate interests and settle internal disputes has been severely degraded through a series of self-inflicted injuries and fortuitous events. Since 2010, the PDP has been unable to resolve the bitter dispute over the collapse of its power sharing principle – for presidential power to swing between the North and the South after every eight years – with Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to run for office. This power rotation agreement sought to stem the perennial fear of domination – between the North and the South, among the major ethnic groups, and between Muslims and Christians since independence – which led to violent coups and a bloody civil war in the mid-1960s.
More generally, a changing demography – 70% of the over 170 million Nigerians are under the age of 30 – has laid bare the ruling party’s dismal record in economic and human development. After more than a decade of sustained economic growth, the number of people living under the $1.25 a day poverty line, according to World Bank figures, hardly budged from 61.8% in 2004 to 62% in 2010. The PDP’s intimidation of party members, elections manipulation and militaristic political culture are also becoming obsolete. Topping a string of high profile defections is the departure of a founding member and former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who tore his membership card in public.
It is within this context that the APC emerged as an alternative platform for reconciling competing elite interests, and whose victory would herald the most unprecedented generational power shift in Nigeria since the civil war in the 1960s. Paradoxically, the very forces that give the APC its best shot at unseating the PDP undermine its populist-progressive credentials. Key members including former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar and the defacto leader of South-West politics, Bola Tinubu are beneficiaries of the current system. To cap it all, the APC’s presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari was a military ruler in the 1980s.
However, Nigeria’s expensive political system, with very high barriers of entry, requires the savviness of such heavyweights to unseat an entrenched hegemon like the PDP. Previous opposition movements, such as in 2011, suffered a decisive defeat due to their lack of cohesion, and the absence of power brokers with the resources and clout to mobilise votes. Thus, while the APC represents radical change from the status-quo, it is not the revolutionary change in personalities many Nigerians were expecting. Yet, the APC is historic precisely because it threatens to completely displace the PDP as a party, its deeper webs of economic interests, and the national ethos it has spawned. Both the APC’s victory, as its loss, would profoundly change Nigeria’s political landscape. This is what makes the elections so contentious.
In this climate of political polarisation, ongoing economic turmoil threatens to unravel some of the PDP’s prized economic reforms. The halving of global oil prices since July 2014 has laid bare the economy’s vulnerabilities. Nigeria’s foreign reserves are drawn down, and the stabilisation fund, the Excess Crude Account (ECA) has been depleted in a time of high oil prices from $35 billion in 2008 to under $3 billion presently. Despite Nigeria’s transition to become Africa’s largest economy in 2014, it exports very little apart from hydrocarbons, which constitute over 95% of exports. Worse still, the Naira has depreciated by more than 30% since late 2014, and many banks have severely lowered limits on foreign exchange transactions. The depreciating currency exerts inflationary pressures on capital markets, large retailers, petty traders and other corners of the import-dependent economy – affecting portfolio investments, rice and other food imports, and consumer goods traded in the informal economy.
Disturbingly, broader economic reforms including the ECA, set up in 2004 to cushion the effects of sudden global oil price swings are being distorted by impulsive fiscal decisions to ensure the ruling party’s political survival. There are authoritative accounts of government agencies directed to channel development funds to select state governors to replenish their political campaign funds.
At a sub-national level, virtually all of Nigeria’s 36 states are overwhelmingly oil dependent. With the exception of Lagos, the country’s financial nerve centre which internally generates 57% of its revenue, all other states are dependent on national oil earnings. With declining oil revenues, not only has the government cut its already low physical and human capital spending to just 14% of the budget but many states owe unpaid salaries to judicial, medical and other public sector workers – some of which have been on strike for months. Innovative non-oil revenue sourcing is urgent. Sadly, ongoing debates among Nigerians on the fiscal viability of the states are thin on substance, but remain rancorous, simplistic and ethnocentric, buttressed by regional politicians capitalising on sectarian divisions.
The political and economic uncertainty is further heightened by Nigeria’s raging battle with the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East. In 2014 alone, over 13,000 people died, hundreds of women and children were abducted in the North East, and almost 30 towns and villages occupied by the insurgents, now threatening Nigeria’s neighbours. However, the scale of Boko Haram’s rampage masks the less publicised pockets of communal conflict in the Middle Belt, violent crime in the South-East and South-West, and oil theft in the Niger-Delta, all requiring innovative policing and decisive leadership.
It is within this context of political polarisation, economic vulnerability and security challenges that Nigeria’s fiercest electoral contest in recent history is to be conducted. A fractured ruling party, hard-pressed to deliver the benefits of democracy and economic growth to the majority of Nigerians faces imminent threat of displacement.
In this epic contest, even state organs are not entirely apolitical. Take for instance, the military and security forces which pressured the electoral commission chair, Professor Attahiru Jega to shift the elections on February 7 because they could “not guarantee security” on the erstwhile dates. Civil society groups are rightly concerned about the security forces’ ability to remain impartial. As someone recently explained to me, “it is not a contest between the APC and the PDP, but between the APC and the State; the entire machinery of the state has been co-opted: the police, the army and many of the courts”.
In such a critical process of internal change, the international community can be instrumental in nudging the government to ensure credible elections hold. The postponement in February heightened suspicion in an already tense environment, worsened by calls by shadowy groups for the sacking of Jega for his insistence in employing electronic card readers to curb electoral manipulation. No doubt, any attempt to tamper with the latest dates would open a Pandora’s Box of grave consequences. Now that Nigerians cherish the hard-won freedoms of democracy and overwhelmingly prefer transitions via the ballot box, it is essential for people to have the legitimate opportunity to express their preference for the PDP’s “continuity” or the “change” the APC claims to represent in a credible and fair process.
Nigeria’s bilateral and multilateral partners must therefore firmly restate the importance of allowing the elections hold as scheduled. It is commendable that the U.S. has made this clear already, while the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has cautioned the political parties to desist from inciting violence. Behind the scenes, Nigeria’s powerful partners must individually pressure certain well-known hawkish actors to desist from subverting the electoral process with targeted punitive incentives.
No doubt, the herculean task of plugging leakages in the country’s finances, creating shared prosperity, securing lives and property, restoring trust among a polarised citizenry and rebuilding institutions distorted by politicking await whoever wins these historic elections. Yet, Nigeria’s experience of defeating the Ebola virus within its borders in record time is proof of the country’s ability and resources to take on its challenges head on once the political will exists. All that remains is to scale through this critical hurdle of transition, and become an important building block for the consolidation of democracy, not just in the country, but on the entire continent.
Ms. Zainab is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999. Her research interests are in governance, economic development, natural resources and extractive industries management, political institutions, gender and security in Sub-Saharan Africa.