YOLA, Nigeria — The attack came in the middle of dinner, and suddenly a calm night was filled with cries and Ruth Thama Gauji was fleeing again, her children bundled haphazardly onto her back.
In the decade since Boko Haram swept across northeastern Nigeria, she has lost count of the attacks, and last week’s was much like ones in the past. One thing is different this time for Gauji, who found shelter in the nearby city of Yola: She wants to get back to her hometown of Shuwa as quickly as possible, even if it’s risky. Only there will she be able to cast her vote in the country’s presidential election, originally scheduled for Saturday but delayed until Feb. 23.
“I will vote for new leaders again and again until someone can kill off Boko Haram,” she said.
The election was postponed early Saturday, just hours before polls were set to open. The election commission cited unspecified “challenges” in its announcement, amid reports that voting materials had not been delivered to all parts of the country, the Associated Press reported.
Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, won the last election on promises of eliminating Boko Haram, a group that has since metastasized into two factions, the larger of which pledges allegiance to the Islamic State. Buhari, a former military general, succeeded in retaking most of the territory lost to the militants during their peak power in 2015, but 2018 brought a sharp rise in violence.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and its most violence-stricken. More civilians were killed in targeted attacks in Nigeria last year than in either Yemen or Afghanistan, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. In addition to Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa affiliate, which the U.S. military estimates have a combined 5,000 fighters, thousands more have joined ethnic militias that compete over scarce land coveted by both herding and farming communities. While Islamist militants killed hundreds of Nigerian soldiers in just the past year, overrunning barracks and capturing weapons, uniforms and vehicles, the ethnic militias operate across a much broader swath of central Nigeria and are proving far deadlier.
The spiraling violence is a symptom of much more intractable challenges. The country’s population is rapidly growing and is expected to overtake the United States’ by 2050, though the United States is 11 times Nigeria’s geographic size. Meanwhile, the average Nigerian is becoming poorer, and almost a quarter of the labor force is unemployed. There were more people living in extreme poverty in Nigeria than in India as of last year. Climate change and increased water usage are turning fertile areas into deserts. More than 13 million children do not regularly attend school. Millions more depend on humanitarian aid to survive.
Despite these challenges, Nigeria’s government has some of the lowest spending per capita on health and education in the world. The country receives significant support from international organizations, as well as the United States and Britain, which held Nigeria as a colony until 1960. The U.S. government gave Nigeria more than $450 million in 2018, mostly for humanitarian aid relating to food and health.
Nigerians yearn for swift change, but this year’s election pits Buhari, who has been in politics for much longer than most of his constituents have been alive, against the business tycoon Atiku Abubakar, also a former vice president. Between them are nine previous runs for president. The average Nigerian is 18 years old, but both Buhari and Abubakar are in their 70s; that gap fuels a sense of detachment from politics that is expected to depress voter turnout.
“In life, each person has the potential to be a builder or a destroyer. But most of us will be graduating without jobs. Thousands of us will be competing for just one vacancy. The only option seems to be criminality,” said Musa Adamu Lawan, a student government leader at Adamawa State Polytechnic university in Yola. Neither of the candidates knows “what life is like for the youth now. They grew up during better times.”
Buhari is banking on his relatively sound reputation for honesty in a country riddled with political corruption, and on marginal successes in economic growth and the fight against Boko Haram. His banners around Yola stress that his administration is a “moving train” that should be allowed to gather momentum. His opponents say he has anything but energy. An undisclosed illness kept Buhari in London for almost half of 2017, and he has denied rumors that he uses a body double.
Abubakar, widely referred to by his first name, Atiku, is riding the wave of public impatience. He is promising to double the economy in one presidential term, partly by privatizing divisions of Nigeria’s mammoth state oil company. Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer, and Abubakar made much of his fortune as a businessman through Intels, his oil and gas logistics company. His autobiography is titled “Making Money,” and many of his supporters hope he will help them do just that.
There is little by way of ideological difference between the candidates, and they are both Muslims belonging to the Fulani ethnic group. Abubakar used to be part of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC), even allowing Buhari to use his private jet during the 2015 presidential campaign, before defecting in late 2017. The race is expected to be tight.
“The election is about sentiment over substance all the way,” said Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigeria analyst for the International Crisis Group. “Candidates move between political parties looking for better deals as if they were football clubs.”
Abubakar’s record as vice president has come under intense scrutiny in Nigeria and the United States. In 2006, he was accused of diverting $125 million in public funds toward his business interests. And four years later, a U.S. Senate report accused him of transferring $40 million in “suspect funds” to his American wife’s bank account. He denies the allegations and has not been tried in court, and he recently traveled to Washington to clear up doubts that he would be allowed to enter the United States.
“The candidates seem to have no sense of the urgency of all Nigeria’s ticking time bombs — corruption, the economy, insecurity. And you don’t need to use your imagination to see what crises the future holds — they are already upon us,” Obasi said. “Most of Nigeria is sinking.”
One bright spot is a reduced chance of political violence in this year’s election. Since Buhari and Atiku are both of the same religion and ethnic group, a sense of competition among Nigeria’s diverse population is diminished. Nevertheless, each candidate has accused the other of sabotage and incitement.
Buhari’s recent sacking of the country’s chief justice, who would play a crucial role in resolving election disputes, prompted Abubakar to call Buhari an authoritarian. Buhari maintains that the judge failed to declare his personal assets, but the timing has struck many as politically motivated, and the United Nations joined Abubakar in condemning the move.
Abubakar’s party has also accused the independent election commission of failing to clean up voter rolls, leaving up to a million “ghost voters” whose names could be used in potential vote-rigging.
In Yola, the capital of Abubakar’s home state of Adamawa, his money and success seem distant. Boko Haram has emptied many of the rural areas, driving up food prices. Three neat meals a day are unattainable for most.
Idris Usman earns $40 a month as a day laborer, building richer people’s homes. He has done masonry for a decade and still has not saved enough to complete his own one-room house, which remains roofless.
“We want someone who loves the masses, not commands them,” said Idris, who was undecided on who will get his vote.
Others had given up on the electoral process.
“No matter what, I am not voting. It is a pure waste of time. It is full of lies and scams. In one word, it is wahala,” said Adama Suleiman, using a common Nigerian term for trouble. Suleiman’s food stall was burned down amid violence tied to the 2015 election. On a recent day, she sat in a friend’s restaurant, cleaning stalks of waterleaf, a local vegetable.
Asked what she would say to Buhari if given the chance, she let loose a belly laugh. “He doesn’t speak Kilba, so I wouldn’t be able to be as sharp-tongued as I’d like,” she said, referring to her native language. “But I would tell him that his presidency should be devoted to people like me.”