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Don’t ignore Nigeria’s gubernatorial elections

A man stands in a box wrapped in campaign banners at the flag-off campaign of All Progressives Congress (APC) governorship candidate Akinwunmi Ambode in Lagos on Jan. 14. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

Kim Yi Dionne: The following guest post by Alex Thurston of Georgetown University is the first of a few we will be featuring on the upcoming Nigerian elections, as part of our broader series of Monkey Cage Election Reports.

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Nigeria’s presidential election, scheduled for Feb. 14, offers a dramatic rematch between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The presidency of Africa’s most populous country, which also has the continent’s biggest economy, is one of the most powerful offices in the Global South.

Yet Nigeria’s 36 governors also have considerable sway. They allocate federally disbursed revenue and shape policy on development and security in their states. Many of them are national and even international figures.

Gubernatorial elections on Feb. 28 will produce a new slate of officeholders in some of the most populous and economic important states. Governors, like the president, are limited to two four-year terms. Nigeria’s Fourth Republic began in 1999, meaning many states have seen just two governors under the current system. The second cohort’s tenures end this year. As I detail in a report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Background to Nigeria’s 2015 Elections,” even if Jonathan wins, state-level politics will see consequential changes in personalities and, in some cases, policies.

With the campaign in full swing, one hears three diverging arguments about the parties. A pro-Jonathan argument casts the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as a force for positive transformation, particularly in terms of Nigeria’s economic performance and infrastructural development. Pro-opposition narratives depict Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) as a progressive alternative to PDP rule, a way out of austerity, endemic corruption and insecurity. The third perspective presents the race as a struggle between “godfathers” – behind-the-scenes power brokers – with little difference between the parties. Campaigns for state offices test and sometimes upend these narratives: one off-cycle race last summer saw voters rejecting a reformist APC governor in favor of a PDP populist.

Among the open gubernatorial races, three states to watch are Lagos, Kano and Rivers. All have huge populations and economic might. Lagos’s government estimates that the state has 21 million inhabitants – a credible claim, and one that would make Lagos (the state capital) Africa’s most populous city. Not only does Lagos state have more people than many African countries, its gross domestic product (estimated at $91 billion by the current administration) dwarfs even Kenya’s ($55 billion). Kano, the second most populous state with over 10 million residents, is the commercial center of northern Nigeria. Rivers is a key state in the oil-producing Niger Delta. The capital of Rivers is Port Harcourt, a major industrial city.

All three states currently have APC governors. Lagos is an APC stronghold: Although Buhari hails from the north and is expected to win the far northern states as in 2011, much of the APC’s strength as a coalition comes from the southwest. The APC and one of its constituent parties, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), have ruled Lagos since 1999. A key APC leader is former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu, whose former Attorney General Yemi Osinbajo is Buhari’s running mate. Tinubu and current Gov. Babatunde Fashola have received international acclaim for their governance model, which emphasizes tax collection and service delivery in contrast to the model of distributing oil rents, the preferred policy at the national level and in most other states.

With Fashola term-limited, Lagos’s next governor will most likely be APC candidate Akinwunmi Ambode – another veteran of Tinubu’s administration. In 2011, the ACN won 81 percent of the vote. If the APC loses Lagos’s governorship this year, it will be a sign either that things went terribly wrong for the APC’s campaign or that massive fraud occurred. In either case, it would bode poorly for the APC’s continued existence as a viable national party. An Ambode victory, on the other hand, would likely represent continuity in policy. Finally, it will be important to see whether the APC can deliver Lagos for Buhari – a strong showing in the southwest and the “Middle Belt” could give the APC the presidency.

In Kano, state politics are more competitive. Since 1999, two men have battled for control: outgoing Gov. Rabiu Kwankwaso, who served 1999-2003 and won a comeback in 2011; and former governor Ibrahim Shekarau, who defeated Kwankwaso in 2003 on a pledge to strengthen Islamic law in the state, and subsequently (but narrowly) won a second term. Kwankwaso won as the PDP candidate, but defected to the APC in 2013, along with three other northern governors who fell out with the president. Shekarau, in response, left the APC to become Jonathan’s minister of education. Both Kwankwaso and Shekarau are term-limited, but the 2015 election will be a proxy fight: current Deputy Gov. Abdullahi Ganduje will face Shekarau’s candidate, Salihu Takai.

Kano’s election could be close: when Kwankwaso battled Takai in 2011, he won with only 49 percent of the vote. Whoever wins will face a daunting, multifaceted task: protecting the state from attacks by Boko Haram and leading a revival of the northern economy, particularly by creating jobs for youth. Additionally, Kano is a laboratory for the experiment in Islamic law: Shekarau used it to censor films and separate genders on public transportation, Kwankwaso used it to promote mass marriages of widows and divorcees, and both have used it to limit alcohol and prostitution. The winner may also have to calm an angry city: When Jonathan won reelection in 2011 and northern cities rose up in protest, Kano saw some of the most violent riots.

Rivers was the site of another defection from the PDP. Outgoing Gov. Rotimi Amaechi joined Kwankwaso in leaving the PDP in 2013. Amaechi and Jonathan fell out partly due to bad blood between Amaechi and first lady Patience, who hails from Rivers. Amaechi’s exit caused tension and violence in Rivers, including intimidation by the national police against Amaechi. The 2015 election will pit the PDP’s Nyesom Wike, Amaechi’s former chief of staff, against Rep. Dakuku Peterside, a current Amaechi ally. Amaechi won with 86 percent in 2011, but his popularity may not transfer to Peterside without the PDP behind them. The Niger Delta is Jonathan’s home territory; it provided some of his largest margins of victory in 2011. As the APC battles to hold Rivers and Jonathan seeks to repeat his blowout victories in the region, Rivers could see more bloodshed.

Other states are also important. There is an open race in Plateau, site of recurring Muslim-Christian violence. High-profile candidates are running in Kaduna (former cabinet minister Nasir el-Rufai, on the APC ticket) and Adamawa (former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu, on the PDP ticket). Both states have experienced political disruptions: in Kaduna, the death of a sitting governor in 2012; in Adamawa, the governor’s impeachment last July, after he ran afoul of Jonathan. As in the past, Kaduna could see violence this cycle, while the governor’s race in Adamawa (site of ongoing Boko Haram attacks) will help shape politics in the northeast for the next four years.

Nigeria’s term-limited governors will not retire into obscurity. For example, Kwankwaso is running for the Senate. Many former governors remain active as businessmen, politicians and “godfathers.” But 2015 will transfer many governors’ seats to new occupants. Regardless of whether Jonathan or Buhari wins, Nigeria’s deck of politicians will be reshuffled, and the new governors will play a strong role in shaping the country’s trajectory through 2019.

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