Lagos – In less than two weeks, the country goes to vote for the next leader in an election described by analysts as one of the "fiercest" in many years.
The elections are scheduled to take place on 14 February and a lot of questions have been asked in the past weeks regarding the country's readiness in holding these elections.
In particular it is the issue of security - in the face of continued assaults by the militant group Boko Haram – that has remained a major concern.
The recently ended African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, mandated a 7 500 regional force to fight the Boko Haram insurgency. But fears remain high that the Islamist militants are "a clear threat" to the success of these elections.
News24 spoke to the Institute for Security Studies political analyst Andre Roux about this and other issues.
News24: Just how ready do you think Nigeria is for these elections?
Roux: As a people, Nigeria is looking forward to what is going to be probably the most democratic elections ever. But definitely no, the country is not ready for the upcoming elections.
News24: Why do you say so?
Roux: The precarious security situation - including the fact that more than one million people have been internally displaced just as a result of the Boko Haram violence - means that many people won't have the opportunity to vote, and they will be fearful to vote as polling stations will be ideal targets for suicide bombers from Boko Haram.
News24: So clearly Boko Haram remains a serious threat. But why are the authorities going ahead with the elections?
Roux: While this will be on everyone's mind - addressing Boko Haram is a long term problem. Despite the AU announcement of a five-nation 7 500 man intervention force to address the Boko Haram threat, this will take many weeks to set-up and deploy. The rapid deployment however, of Chad military forces in terms of an earlier Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) as part of a joint multinational task force to address Boko Haram, has already had major impact. The challenge, however is that we are speaking about an area the size of Belgium and a very mobile and effective terrorist organisation that has the ability to "swarm" and attack a village then disappear again using trucks, buses, motorcycles, cars and all manner of transport.
I think that election rallies are obviously a prime target for the kind of vehicle bombing and individual suicide bombing that Boko Haram have engaged in before. Their objective will be to sow terror and intimidate voters. This means Nigerian security forces will be tied down with fixed location protection requirements – and this means less pressure on Boko Haram via military action which could otherwise be exerted. This creates an opportunity for Boko Haram to continue their strategy of attacking the major towns and cities in the north-eastern part of the country.
News24: There is something else that has also obviously remained a problem for many Nigerians and that is the issue of voter cards. Do you think authorities will be able to deal with it before the election date?
Roux: The most critical aspect about the voter cards is that only about 30 million Nigerians have received them in the last year. This is about half of the electorate. To believe that the other 30 million will receive them in the next two weeks is pushing reality a bit. It is therefore, a technical issue that would be extremely difficult to make a 14 February date plausible and to enable a free and fair election.
News24: But do you think the government is even taking this into consideration?
Roux: President Goodluck Jonathan is aware of this but due to there being such a strong opposition from Muhammad Buhari's coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), and opposition allegations that it would be a political delaying tactic by Jonathan to postpone the elections, the date has remained the same. President Jonathan will be relying on the Independent National Electoral Committee (INEC) to admit they technically can't make the 14 February date feasible and postpone the elections.
News24: Do you foresee a smooth transition of power in the event opposition wins?
Roux: While Nigeria has been plagued by cycles of political instability leading to military coups, I believe that the electorate will not easily accept being denied a democratic outcome and transition of power. I think democracy is much more entrenched now and the power of social media means there is so much more transparency and that mobilising a nation is now so much easier – just look at the "Arab spring". The implications remain that a military coup or ruling party holding onto power unconstitutionally would evoke widespread mobilisation and unrest – I believe the important role players are very aware of this.
News24: What's your comment on recent reports that foreign journalists are being blocked from covering the elections? What picture does it give regarding a free and fair election?
Roux: As we have seen in Africa before – "free and fair" mean different things to different people and different standards are sometimes applied.
While the first reaction from the international media may be that lack of international media would encourage political actors to engage in very partisan and perhaps unethical behaviour like the sabotaging of opposition rallies, intimidation and suppression of free electioneering, it is more likely a scenario where the ruling party and therefore the government, wishes to control the flow of information, prevent issues of debate – such as Boko Haram to handling of the economy - from becoming high profile electioneering issues where a balanced viewpoint is not presented.
That said there is probably a security concern, governance and perception management issue as well as political concern by a ruling party at a vocal and strong opposition which has guided this decision.
News24: Anything else that you might want to say about these elections?
Roux: Well, the biggest concern in overall remains the economic and security stability of Nigeria. The deep divisions in Nigerian society on religious, ethnic and economic levels mean that there are very fragile links which keep Nigeria together as an autonomous entity and democratic state.
Dissatisfaction with the ruling party over service delivery, the economy and Boko Haram, together with a political opposition that draws support from a much broader base than we have seen before means this will be a very close election.
Obviously election violence will be a concern with the possibility of certain areas becoming very difficult to campaign in other than the local dominant political grouping. Should the elections be postponed, we will see an even more intense political struggle that would deflect government’s focus on key issues such as addressing Boko Haram, the economy, governance and development.
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