Kim Yi Dionne: The following guest post by Peter Lewis and Carolyn Logan is the second that we are featuring on the upcoming Nigerian elections, as part of our broader series of Monkey Cage Election Reports.
On Feb. 14, Nigerians are expected to go to the polls for presidential and legislative elections. Two weeks later, elections for many state governors and assemblies are scheduled to follow. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are grappling with major national challenges, most notably the brutal Boko Haram insurgency based in the country’s northeastern states, sharply lower oil revenue, disarray in public finances and a string of corruption allegations centering on the petroleum sector.
The PDP, which has dominated Nigeria’s political space since the 1999 transition to civilian rule, is also facing a more unified opposition than in the past. The All Progressives Congress (APC), a merger of opposition parties, is contesting the presidency, and its flag bearer, Muhammadu Buhari, has launched a vigorous challenge to the incumbent. This election promises to be the most competitive ever experienced in Nigeria.
Jonathan has faced off against Buhari before — and won handily. In the 2011 elections, Jonathan walked away with nearly 59 percent of the vote, to Buhari’s 32 percent. But amid a deepening security crisis and other pressing issues that the government has been ineffective in addressing, many perceive that a unified opposition has an opportunity to do well or even win.
While partisan advocates and media pundits argue the relative prospects of the competitors, a recent Afrobarometer survey offers insights to help inform the analysis. The survey, conducted Dec. 5-27 with a nationally representative sample of 2,400 adult Nigerians (with 80 additional interviews conducted Jan. 18-19) has a margin of sampling error of +/-2 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.
The national survey in Nigeria finds the two parties running neck and neck in the presidential race, each with 42 percent support among likely voters. While some observers believe that Buhari has developed momentum in the weeks since the survey, these impressions — often based on observations in a few urban locales — are not always reliable indicators of outcomes. Understanding that support can shift significantly during contentious electoral campaigns, in our judgment the race remains a tossup.
The survey results tell us much about the shift in the relative fortunes of the incumbent. Jonathan’s approval rating has slipped to 40 percent, and his government gets failing marks for its handling of most key issues. The major exception is the public’s 94 percent approval of the government’s successful response to an Ebola outbreak, which was quickly contained. But set against extremely poor marks on economic management, job creation, providing a reliable electric supply and fighting corruption, the successful Ebola response may not carry much weight when Nigerians cast their ballots. Three-quarters (74 percent) say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
Meanwhile, the formation of the opposition APC has substantially broadened Buhari’s potential base of support, as proponents from the southwestern states and other pockets of the country have joined his traditional base in the north. Although 11 candidates will formally be on the presidential ballot, this time it clearly comes down to a two-man race.
There has been recent discussion about whether the election will go to a second round, though many analysts are confused about the requirements for a runoff. Nigeria’s constitution stipulates that, in a race with more than two candidates, the victor requires only a plurality of the vote (not a majority of 50 percent plus 1). In addition, the winner must demonstrate a geographic spread of votes, defined as a minimum of 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT, a.k.a. Abuja). This provision is intended to prevent purely ethnic or regional appeals by national candidates. If the leading candidate does not also satisfy the geographic distribution in the first round, then a runoff will be held a week later between the top two vote recipients. In that case the winner would be required to achieve an outright majority along with the vote spread across the states. The sample size from the Afrobarometer survey is not large enough at the state level to provide highly reliable results. However, the available numbers suggest that both of the leading candidates have a reasonably good chance of meeting the distribution criterion, thus reducing the likelihood of a second round.
Nigeria’s diverse states have been grouped into geo-political zones by politicians and analysts. At the zonal level, where sample sizes are large enough to report results, the survey finds that Jonathan is set to poll most strongly in North Central (or middle belt), Southeast and South (Niger delta) zones, while Buhari’s base is most solid in the Northwest and the Southwest. The Northeast zone — the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency — is more closely contested, but when focusing on likely voters, it appears that Buhari has the edge there as well. However, three states in Northeast (Adamawa, Borno and Yobe) are severely affected by the security crisis and currently under a state of emergency. It may not be possible to conduct the election in parts or all of these states. It is also not yet clear whether hundreds of thousands of Nigerians displaced by the violence will have the opportunity to vote. Both factors have the potential to seriously undermine the basic credibility of the election.
A recent joint pre-election assessment mission by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (NDI/IRI), while noting Nigerians’ expressed determination to ensure peaceful and credible elections, also raised additional concerns about election administration, campaign violence, and the potential willingness of losing candidates to accept the results.
Nigerians themselves share these concerns. The good news is that 80 percent say they feel free to vote as they choose. But at the same time, fully 50 percent say that they personally fear “becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence” during the election campaign, a tension that is up from 34 percent in 2012.
There is qualified assurance among Nigerians in the reliability of the forthcoming polls. Nearly two-thirds, 64 percent, express confidence that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is “ready to hold credible free and fair elections,” despite ongoing delays in the process of distributing biometric voter cards and concerns about the reliability of electronic card readers. Confidence in the commission’s trustworthiness is correspondingly low: Just one in three Nigerians, 32 percent, trust it “somewhat” or “a lot.”
The country’s history of election irregularities also continues to make its mark. Although the 2011 poll was considered by far Nigeria’s best since the restoration of multiparty elections in 1999, popular perceptions of the credibility of that poll are declining over time. In 2012, 71 percent rated the 2011 election as mostly or completely free and fair, but by 2014, only 47 percent see it that way. In general, fewer than one in four Nigerians, 23 percent, now believes that votes are “often” or “always” counted fairly, presenting a stark challenge to the INEC if it is to overcome widespread public doubts about the integrity of the process.
The competitiveness of the upcoming election is potentially both a blessing and a curse for Nigeria. The real possibility of electoral turnover would be considered a milestone in the consolidation of democracy, not only in Nigeria but in the wider African region. But highly competitive races also put the country on tenterhooks. Will votes be cast and counted fairly? And will the losers accept the results? The tragic outcome of a similarly tight race in Kenya in 2007 is much on people’s minds, although the peaceful outcome in a similarly close contest in Ghana in 2008 offers a far more positive model.
The country’s best chance of emerging successfully and peacefully from the upcoming election will lie with the INEC, as well as the political parties and candidates, in taking steps to reinforce the credibility of the polls. This includes especially fostering a secure environment during the remainder of the campaign and on Election Day, and ensuring a transparent process of counting and tallying votes. So far, indicators that these goals will be achieved are mixed at best. Given the high stakes of a close race and a polarized electorate in a volatile environment, the imperatives of a credible election matter in Nigeria as never before.
Afrobarometer is an African-led, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues across more than 30 countries in Africa. For more information, see www.afrobarometer.org.