Nigeria: the Imprint of Boko Haram on the Campaign

Olabisi Shoaga

The forthcoming elections in Nigeria will be special in at least two ways from the preceding ones. First, they are the first elections since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999 that will be contested by two similarly matched political parties: the People’s Democratic Party of the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and the All Progressives Congress of his main contender, the Retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari. Secondly, they will be the first elections in which candidates’ campaigns not only center on the usual pledges to end poverty, unemployment, inequality and insecurity but also curb the violent Islamic insurgency in the North-East.

Boko Haram, formally known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), has an objective to establish Islamic rule over the all country. Since 2009 the sect has carried out violent attacks on police stations, military bases, churches, mosques, schools, markets, companies as well as political and religious leaders. Some of its most high profile attacks include those on the United Nations Nigerian headquarters in Abuja and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls. From July 2014 onwards the Islamic insurgency intensified, acquiring a significant politico-territorial dimension as the sect began to capture and occupy towns and cities in the North-East in its bid to establish a Caliphate. Boko Haram has also extended its operations to neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In May 2013, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the federal states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe but till now the Islamic insurgency continued largely unabated.

The continuation of Boko Haram’s violent operations has effectively and publicly demonstrated the ineptitude of the Jonathan administration in dealing with it. The very existence of Boko Haram is both consequence and evidence of State failure in several spheres. Founded in 2002 as a non-violent self-help Islamic organization, the sect attracted popular support because of the assistance it provided in the society. It gave loans and provisions to the poor and helped the unemployed youth find work. This was particularly significant in the North-East, the stronghold of Boko Haram and one of the poorest regions of the nation. The socio-economic indicators for the region are particularly dire. More than half of the population in the North-East lives in poverty. The mortality rate is relatively high compared to other parts of the Federation. There are also more children out of school and people out of work.

The situation has largely remained unchanged under the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, the first president from a minority ethnic group in the oil-rich but underdeveloped Niger Delta. Despite his rags to riches story, his own regime has not succeeded in reducing the lot of the average Nigerian. Economic growth experienced during his tenure has not translated into lesser inequality. For the radical perspective of Boko Haram, it was, however, not this particular government that was at fault per se, it was the secular nature of the State. The development that was meant to accompany a Western form of government was largely absent in the country, especially in the North. This was the situation even when Muslims from the region were at the helm of government. It is therefore not surprising that Boko Haram has consistently sought to undermine and destabilize the State as well as overturn the existing political and religious establishment in order to create a new order. It is therefore unlikely that the sect will restrain or cease its attacks to allow a Muslim candidate to take over smoothly the reins of government.

The government failings that led to the creation of Boko Haram have also allowed for the insurgency to continue for as long as it did. Increased military expenditure in the past decade has not led to progress in the fight against Boko Haram. The army is ill-equipped, underpaid and demotivated compared to the terrorists that it is meant to tackle. Security forces have been mostly limited to protecting themselves as well as those in power and capable of paying for their services rather than the vulnerable populations under attack. This observation has led to several outbreaks of public protests on campaign convoys of the incumbent president in areas most affected by Boko Haram’s violence.

In the months preceding the elections, Boko Haram’s attacks have only intensified. As a result the uprising remains a major subject of political debate. The two main contenders for the presidency, the incumbent president Jonathan and the challenger Buhari are being evaluated on their will and capacity to contain the insurgency. Despite Jonathan’s advantage of incumbency and access to greater funds, the polls give Buhari an almost equal chance of winning the election. The continued uprising would impact the outcome of the elections. First, Boko Haram’s attacks have mostly been in the North-East where Buhari has his electoral stronghold. The insurgency which has resulted in the deaths of thousands and the displacement of more than a million and half people has affected the distribution of voters’ cards, thereby significantly reducing the number of electors. The delay of the Election-Day will be enough?

There would also be no voting in the areas under occupation by Boko Haram. In recent weeks, the Nigerian army has recaptured some of the area previously under the occupation of the “rebels” but there is still a significant area to be reclaimed. Failure of the elections to take place in the affected areas would not only result in post-electoral legal disputes but also violence, especially in the event of a Jonathan’s victory. The sect might also disrupt voting in the areas where its operations are not so frequent and intense. In a country where a large proportion of the population relies significantly on social media to keep abreast of latest developments, propagated rumors of an impending or ongoing attack would be more than sufficient to disrupt the elections.

Postponement of the elections is indicative of the success of Boko Haram in creating ungovernable spaces. After rejecting an initial call by the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, to delay the elections in order to allow for the distribution of millions of voters’ cards, the elections have now been postponed by six weeks. The deferment attests yet again to the influence of Boko Haram. It is doubtful that six weeks would be adequate to tackle an insurrection which has lasted five years. Six weeks might, however, be sufficient to demonstrate that the Jonathan administration is in fact willing and, with the help of international partners, capable of handling the uprising. This would, of course, enable his campaign to garner more votes. In any case, six weeks is definitely not enough to tackle the roots of the Boko Haram crisis.

Olabisi Shoaga, Phd at the University of Bordeaux

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