Nigeria’s elections in 2015 were the fifth round since the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999. Out of the almost 180 million people living in Nigeria there are some 70 million eligible voters living across the country’s 36 states. To win the Presidential election any candidate has to get 25% of the vote in at least two thirds of the states – not always an easy thing given regional and religious divisions in the country. For the first time since 1999 there was a significant opposition party in play, the APC (All Progressives Congress formed out of a merger of several smaller parties in 2013) and for the first time since 1999 an opposition candidate won the election. The presence of a strong opposition combined with hiccups in the nation’s economy (falling oil prices, slow delivery and continuing corruption) and the insecurity bred by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North all contributed to heightened tensions around the election. This was not helped by media reporting that focused on the tensions, complications around the new Permanent Voter Card (PVC) and the implications for national trust in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) or, the late announcement of a six week delay of the elections to March 28 which was previously planned to happen for February 14.
Elections have a complicated past for Nigeria. The relatively new transition to civilian rule saw the first transfer of power occur in 2007 and it was not without incident. However, elections have been progressively more credible in the country and the INEC has worked to iron out various kinks in the system. As in many newer democracies, ballot stuffing and multiple voting have been a persistent challenge for Nigeria. The INEC answer to this in 2015 involved interventions on a number of fronts broadly summed up as the Modified Open Ballot System (MOBS) and built on the issue of PVCs with biometric data. Where in other places polls open at 6am and struggle to move all voters through by 6pm, in Nigeria polling units have been capped at 750 people and the day involves morning accreditation, afternoon voting and a communal count. Tempers were remarkably calm given all the long periods of waiting. Prior to the elections there was talk of disenfranchisement through both the slow delivery of PVCs and as a result of the high number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the North of the country regarded as Boko Haram territory. Positively, the six week delay saw good resolution on both fronts. 89% of the PVCs had been distributed by Election Day and it was reported that just three local governance areas in the North remained in Boko Haram control even so, (INEC had established special voting sites for IDPs).
On the eve of voting, it was clear that leaders across the parties and the states were committed to a peaceful election – whether their supporters would respond with equanimity to the results was a little less uncertain.
As an international election observer you only ever see a slice of the Election Day pie and that slice is flavoured by the area to which you are deployed, the local facilitation you have with you and your ability to catch the nuances of culture and language after only a brief insight into the country. I was part of a team of two deployed to Ekiti State – less contentious in the national election because the elections for State Governor had taken place in 2014. State Governors represent significant centres of power in Nigeria. We had almost two days prior to the 28th to familiarise ourselves with the localised context and issues and were fortunate to have a well-informed local facilitator who was able to interpret situations for us and to secure meetings across the political party spectrum. The day was peopled with colour and patience. We watched the PVC Card Readers reject fingerprints more often than they accepted them at all polling units (possibly a function of errors in the original taking of fingerprints) but most voters were then manually accredited and still cast a vote. As the sun set we stood with around 400 voters in front of a polling unit and watched them communally count the votes per party and debate spoilt ballots with the presiding officer. Then it was lock down at home, to wait.
General Muhammed Buhari of the APC held the day winning 54% of the vote to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan’s 45%. Buhari first ran the country in the early 1980s after a successful military coup, with this election he was sworn in as President in May 2015. Was his win credible through a free and fair process? As one analyst noted in a pre-election briefing, it is important to moderate your expectations of elections – there will always be challenges. What I observed in Ekiti was a reasonably transparent process despite technical hitches and the spectre of ballot buying in the form of t-shirts and food parcels (though wearing a t-shirt is not the same as marking your X). Goodluck Jonathan stood out for conceding defeat – an action that speaks loudly in a continent where so few leaders are prepared to submit to the possibility of loss inherent in a democratic system. For Nigerians, time will tell if Buhari and his ‘broom’ (the APC party symbol) can sweep clean some of the corruption and mismanagement that continue to prejudice the nation’s poor.
*Karin Alexander, a Democracy Works Associate, was in Nigeria for the 2015 elections as an international delegate with the International Republican Institute (IRI). Detail on the IRI’s work in Nigeria and press releases on the election can be found here.