In less than a week, Nigerians will head to the polls but a toxic mix between religious violence and political uncertainty is making peaceful elections very doubtful
Less than a week until the national polls, Nigeria’s ruling party is facing an unprecedented shift in the politics of religion that could mean trouble for current incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.
While still the favourite, experts say that two key factors could see his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) removed from power for the first time since military rule ended in the country in 1999.
Frist, opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria, has gained some surprising traction in the predominantly Christian south, despite efforts by the PDP to portray him as a religious extremist.
Second, the PDP could face a historically unprecedented lopsided defeat in the Muslim-dominate north, where they have usually drawn considerable support, even when running a Christian candidate.
Opposition leader Buhari is a fromer army general who led a military government for 20 months starting in Dec. 1983, and is not exactly a dream candidate to many in the south.
An entrenched antipathy towards Muslims can be found among Nigeria’s southern populace, where members of the Muslim Hausa ethnic group plundered the country as military rulers throughout much of the 1980’s and 1990’s.
PDP efforts to brand Buhari as a religious extremist devoted to Muslim law have seen some success, according to John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
“It is grossly unfair. I know him. He is not an extremist but these things resonate,” said Campbell.
Buhari heads the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, and is currently making his fourth run at the presidency. He has been billed as Nigeria’s chief anti-corruption crusader, a reputation which has attracted nationwide support.
Analyst Jibrin Ibrahim finds this particular election interesting because it is the first time in religiously-divided Nigeria where governance could be “surpassing religion” as a campaign issue.
“The issue of religion is very present in all our elections and will be in this one,” said Ibrahim, from the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja.
“What I think is new about these elections is that it is really about the failures of Johnathan. There are votes in the south who don’t particularly like Buhari but have been extremely disappointed with the last four years and that could shift support to Buhari.”
President Johnathan has been heavily criticized for his failure to reduce corruption in Africa’s most populated and top economical country, where billions of public dollars have been stolen, particularly in the oil sector.
Boko Haram’s violent uprising has also worsened each year under the president’s watch, with over 13,000 people killed since 2009.
Since 1999 the PDP has won all four presidential elections with support in both the north and south. Since Johnathan taking over after the 2010 death of his predecessor, the alliance between northern and southern powers within the party has been fragile.
After Johnathan decided to run for a second term in 2015, several key northern politicians quit the PDP and joined the ADP, including Rabiu Kwankwaso, governor of the most populous state in northern Nigeria.
If the president’s northern support continues to collapse, and Buhari continues to make inroads to the south, analysts say a loss for the president is a very real possibility.