In Nigeria, all is set, but for what?

By Ayo Ojebode[i]

Entering Nigeria today is like entering a small room filled with a great number of people all of whom are shouting different things at the top of their lungs at the same time. Ignore the heat in that room; ignore the dinginess and try to make out something of this Tower of Babel. You will then hear the following words and more: “change” “till 2019” “North East” “North” “South” “Jonathan” “Buhari” “Boko Haram” “certificate” “trains” “sharia” “Muslim” “Christians” “security” and of course, “corruption”.  This is what you get, whether you enter Nigeria physically through the airports, or virtually on Facebook, twitter or on Nigerian sites such as Nairaland. It is what you get when you read those caustic comments that follow online news and blogs.

This is not new at all. Very often, you know Nigerians have arrived when you hear loud voices, long blasts of car honks, and loud music, and when you see big cars and heavy pieces of luggage. Nigerians love it loud and big.

A country of about 173 million people, Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 after prolonged military rule. Since then, it has been ruled by one party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which threatens to rule for at least fifty years before permitting a change.

Nigeria runs a multiparty system – therefore, there are many political parties. Some are such that their entire membership can travel comfortably in one 18-passenger bus.

Ask a politician not ‘how are you doing?’ but ‘in which party are you now?’
Politics in Nigeria is not based on ideology. As a matter of fact, the PDP, which is far right, runs free education in some states. And, if Labour Party declares that it will protect big businesses, most Nigerians will not realise that they are supposed to be shocked. As a result of this ideological vacuity, politicians freely defect from parties with austere opportunities to more fertile ones, and defect back as soon as things improve for the abandoned ship. It is part of normal greetings to ask a politician not “how are you doing?” but “in which party are you now?”

Though a vast exporter of crude oil, Nigeria is still among those nations with a high poverty index, high maternal mortality and a weak currency. That’s why the recent proud announcement that Nigeria’s economy is the largest in Africa attracted shock, disbelief and anger, directed at statistical economists.

Only one thing unites Nigerians: national soccer; two major things divide Nigerians – ethnicity and religion. It’s no longer shocking that two Nigerian neighbours, who have lived together in peace for decades, suddenly reach for each other’s jugular because a religious fanatic fanned into flames the embers of religious differences that had been unnoticed.

It is not Muslims versus Christians
Which is why the configuration in the coming presidential election is not unusual. The incumbent president, who is seeking re-election, is a Christian from the South and the major opponent is a Muslim from the North. To make matters more Nigerian, each has chosen a running mate from the other faith and the other region. In the final analysis, it is a Muslim versus a Christian but fortunately, Nigerians know that it is not Muslims versus Christians. Therefore, each contender is drawing substantial following from the other faith. Most often, this inter-faith and inter-ethnic combination is Nigeria’s way of dealing with its tense diversity.

Nigerians go to the polls once in four years to elect about ten thousand politicians (ward councillors, local government chairmen, state governors, state House of Assembly members, national House of Assembly members, Senators, the Vice President and the President). These roughly 10,000 people who constitute about 0.005% of the population earn a huge percentage of the national budget. In 2010, the overheads of the National Assembly alone was 25% of the federal government’s overheads. In 2013, a legislator’s basic salary was 116 times the national GDP; compared to 2.7 times for their British counterpart[1]. But the National Assembly is not the only one in this. In 2014, President Jonathan was reported to have bought the eleventh private jet[2]. Yet, 50.2% of Nigerians in the North East live below the poverty line; 33.1% nationally[3]. So goes the theory, that the poorer a people are, the more affluent and vulgar their leaders are.

By “going to polls”, I mean once in about four years, Nigerians work themselves up to iron-hot frenzy about the things that divide them – ethnicity and religion especially—and threaten to break up their country and fragment the entire globe if someone wins and the other loses. And, as logic can only permit, one person wins and the other loses. Then follows flames and deaths, and gradual calm returns until another four years have passed.

Is anything therefore new?
As the general elections approach, we can, therefore, conclude that in Nigeria, all is set for turbulence, including unfortunate and avoidable deaths, all of which will be followed by business as usual for another four years. But, what if this time things turn out differently? There are reasons to not ignore this hunch.

The insurgency in the North and the war drums in the South
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, national safety and security will be a major factor in people’s minds as they go to the polls this February.  Nigeria once fought a full-fledged civil war from 1967 to 1970 and had overcome several insurrections and insurgencies. But in its sheer barbarity, Boko Haram outshines all known insurgencies in Nigeria and even Africa. The Ugandan Joseph Kony; the Sierra Leonean Foday Sankoh, the Somali Ahmed Godane, CAR’s Michel Djotodia, and several others known for their bestial notoriety might all be considered as contenders for the second position in the order of barbarism where Boko Haram is the clear winner. How does one describe a group that kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in one fell swoop, murdered whole mobile police formations, routed a whole army command, and in one day murdered 2000 people including women and children?

  • US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting Nigerian President
    Goodluck Jonathan in Lagos on January 25, 2015. Kerry met
    the two presidential candidates about accepting the results of
    the election vote. Photo: US Department of State.

The inability of the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to deal as much as a dent with the power of Boko Haram has turned out to be one of the vote deciders in the coming elections. Nigerians are asking how safe anywhere in the country is in the hands of a President and Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces who has been unable to crush an insurgency that was begun with sticks and machetes. To make matters worse for the President, his major challenger, General Muhammadu Buhari, though a Muslim, is known to have crushed an Islamic insurgency when he was a military leader. What President Jonathan has failed to do, General Buhari is seen to have once done. And so as Nigerians think safety and security, the opinions in the coming elections swing clearly in favour of the opposition.

But this is clearly dangerous. Former militants in the South-South and kinsmen of the President have made it very clear that they would wage an all-out war against Nigeria should the President, their brother, lose in the coming elections. It is unbelievable, but it is real. In open crusades, press conferences and other public forums, they have continuously issued what some have described as vulgar and treasonable threats against the entire country (especially the South-West, whose vote is largely decisive in the coming elections). Their past histories of insurgency and reports of their amassment of huge and sophisticated ammunition, including a warship, make it foolhardy to think these are empty threats. Interestingly, the President has said nothing on this.

So, Nigeria is at some crossroads right now. If the President wins a second term, the horrendous savagery in the North East will continue; if he loses, a fresh orgy of violence will erupt in the South-South. Again, it seems most Nigerians want something different; something new. A new upsurge of violence in the South and some relief in the North East is a bad, but at least, fresh idea. In other words, things may turn out differently for Nigeria: the end of elections might not mean the return to business as usual for another four years.

Oil price fall and its fallouts
Most Nigerians knew that the Nigerian economy is morbidly oil-dependent, but they have never seen the implications of that as much as they have in the last few months. As the price of oil went down from $110 per barrel in early 2014 to about $48, many things have gone collapsing in Nigeria. State governors which had consistently paid civil servants and teachers’ salaries immediately began to owe salaries. In Osun State, salaries have not been paid for two months but this is triviality compared to Benue State, which has owed salaries for about seven months. So many public services – refuse collection especially - are being drastically cut down owing to the sparseness of funds coming from Abuja.

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting retired Major-General
    Muhammadu Buhari, January 25, 2015, during his round of talks
    about accepting the results of the elections.

    Photo: US Department of State.

How will this likely affect the coming elections? Nigerians are now aware that without oil, their nation would be strangulated in a few days. The threat of the South-South militants to ’take back our oil’ is making this fear quite real. But will Nigerians vote for President Jonathan so that they can continue to have peaceful access to oil? Or will the increasing hardship being experienced as a result of falling oil prices rather incite a protest vote against the President? Most Nigerians believe that the nation’s economy is this fragile not because oil prices are falling, but because the economy has been generally mismanaged. The Naira has witnessed the freest fall in its history under the watch of the present administration and humongous figures of rising international debts are being regularly reeled out. It seems Nigerians will likely vote for someone who has the chance of liberating the economy, rather than one who promises peaceful access to crude oil.

Things may turn out differently this time for Nigeria. The anger and hunger being made worse by the fall in oil prices may prolong post-election discontent, even violence, especially if electoral malpractices are, as usual, overt. Therefore, Nigeria may not get back quickly to business as usual after the elections.

Is 2015 Doomsday?
About four years ago, it was widely rumoured that the US CIA predicted that Nigeria would break up in 2015 and this generated widespread debate on conventional and social media. Though this rumour has been denied by several American officials, it has continued making the rounds. In those online comments that follow news stories, Nigerians continue to make reference to that phantom prophecy, even when no one is sure whose prophecy it was. Not only this, ethnic groups are composing anthems in their languages, naming it their national anthems. Some former Biafran civil war leaders have been meeting and calling attention to the fact that the injustices that led to their 1967 secession attempt have not been addressed; South -South militants are screaming, “Nigeria will cease to exist”. There is a general feeling that disintegration might just happen in 2015. Whether this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy depends on many factors.

To most outsiders, Nigerians are incurably corrupt. And, do you blame those outsiders? In 2014, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 136th of 175 countries in terms of prevalence of corruption[4].

The truth, however, is that most Nigerians hate corruption. They know that behind every woe that they suffer lies official corruption. Motor accidents caused by unlicensed driving, building collapse that claims lives owing to poor inspection, fake drugs causing avoidable deaths, air disasters caused by shoddy supervision and management, oil theft causing unprecedented loss in revenue, as well as government’s inability to tackle insurgency and ensure citizen security are all products of systemic corruption.

In 2014, the budgetary allocation for fighting the insurgency in the North was 1 trillion Naira (about USD 5.6 billion)[5]. Yet, there are reports that the soldiers are poorly equipped, even poorly clothed and fed. In a letter to the President, a group of officers allegedly informed him that top military officers were corruptly enriching themselves with the money meant for arms and the welfare of the soldiers[6].

Nigerians know all of this and want an end to it. Unfortunately for the current administration, Nigerians also believe that corruption has festered more under it than under any other administration. Fortunately for the opposition, the main opposition candidate has to his credit the fact that he indeed fought corruption fairly well as a military leader. Therefore, nearly everyone who supports General Buhari, elites, politicians and all, are drawn to him by the fact that chances are that he will fight corruption.

Back in the noisy room
In the noisy, overcrowded room, folks are more agreeable than it seems. First, they are saying what, in the final analysis, amounts to the same thing. Pro-Jonathan Nigerians are shouting “transformation”, his slogan in the last six years; pro-Buhari Nigerians are screaming “change”. Not many people are sober enough to remember that transformation means change and change brings transformation.

Second, most Nigerians also agree that whoever wins in the coming election has to make peace in the North-East and citizen security a priority. He or she has to deal with corruption. All this takes gut, muscle and mettle which, some have concluded, the current administration of President Jonathan lacks.

Third, most Nigerians hope and - being very religious people - pray that the post-election tension will fizzle out and peace and normalcy will return without bloodshed.

Fourth, most Nigerians do not know for sure what lies ahead. All is set, but for what?

[1] The Economist Bloggers “Rewarding work: A comparison of lawmakers' pay”

[2] Ilevbare, T. (2014) “President Jonathan’s 11th Private Jet” The Punch Newspaper

[3] World Bank (2014) “Nigeria Economic Report: Improved Economic Outlook in 2014, and Prospects for Continued Growth Look Good”

[4] Transparency International (2014) “Corruption by Country / Territory”

[6] Sahara Reporters (2015) “Why We Could Not Defeat Boko Haram"- Army Commander Writes A Powerful Letter To President Jonathan”


[i] Ayo Ojebode Ayo Ojebode is a senior lecturer at the Department of Communication & Language, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan. He is a Fellow of the African Studies Centre Community.

Join the discussion on the outcome of the elections during the ASC Country Meeting on Nigeria that will take place on 20 February.