Ahead of election, Nigerians reassess an old promise of safety

Ben Curtis/AP
Banners showing incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari hang down from a party campaign office in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 12. Nigeria is due to hold general elections on Saturday, Feb. 16.
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Four years ago, when Nigeria’s former military leader Muhammadu Buhari was elected president, he vowed to vanquish Boko Haram. Then, after less than a year in office, he informed Nigerians that the terror group had been “technically defeated,” a claim his administration more or less maintains.

Today though, on the eve of general elections, many voters in Africa’s largest democracy are skeptical that the incumbent – or his main challenger, for that matter – can quell their country’s many conflicts. Boko Haram continues to rout an under-equipped Nigerian military, and a splinter faction of the group that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State is gaining strength. Meanwhile, several other violent conflicts have ballooned under Mr. Buhari’s tenure, including ethnically and religiously tinged farmer-herder fighting that killed more than 2,000 people last year alone.

But while security issues seem like a place for leading challenger Atiku Abubakar to attack Buhari’s record, they are often too deeply entrenched for easy political point-scoring – and he has shied away from making them central to his campaign.

Why We Wrote This

Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy, and Saturday’s elections are a chance for voters to reset its course. But when it comes to an essential and growing challenge – security – many say they see few new options.

Maryam Abubakar was bent in prayer when she heard the first blast crack over Kano’s central mosque, a sound so loud it felt like the stately building had cracked in two. Before she could react, she felt another explosion rip over her, and then the pop-pop-pop of approaching gunshots. Barefoot and trying not to trip on the bodies splayed all around her, she ran for the street.

It was Nov. 28, 2014, and in the nerve center of Nigeria’s largest Muslim-majority city, the terror group Boko Haram was sending a message: Nowhere is safe.

Afterward, residents say, they tiptoed through their own city.

Why We Wrote This

Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy, and Saturday’s elections are a chance for voters to reset its course. But when it comes to an essential and growing challenge – security – many say they see few new options.

“You saw a woman in a hijab who you didn’t know, and you wondered, is she one of them?” says Kemi Fadipe, a teacher, referring to Boko Haram’s infamous use of female suicide bombers. Everyday tasks, like walking into a crowded market to buy food for your family, began to feel both brave and stupid, she says.

But six months after that blast, which killed more than 120 people, a former military leader named Muhammadu Buhari stood on a stage in Abuja and made the country a promise. He would defeat Boko Haram, once and for all.

“We must not succumb to hopelessness and defeatism,” he said as he was inaugurated as Nigeria’s president in May 2015. “We can fix our problems.”

Today, many here believe he has done exactly that.

“Since the day he was declared winner, there has never been bombings again in Kano, alhamdulillah [Praise God],” Ms. Abubakar says. “I will vote for him on Saturday. He is my champion.”

Ahead of general elections Saturday, the country’s 84 million voters are tallying Mr. Buhari’s successes and failures, weighing whether he deserves a second term at the helm of Africa’s largest democracy. For many, questions around how the president has handled the country’s several violent conflicts will be central to that accounting.

But despite many Kano residents’ support for Buhari, security is a subject on which Nigerians are deeply divided. Many say they have received few promising commitments from either the president or his leading challenger, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party. With security issues often proving too deeply entrenched for easy political point-scoring, leading candidates frequently avoid tackling them head-on.

Sani Maikatanga/Reuters
Nigeria's main opposition party presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, stands atop a bus as he greets supporters during a campaign rally ahead of elections, in Kano, Nigeria, Feb. 10.

Since Buhari took office, Boko Haram has retreated from the north’s major cities. Then in control of 20,000 square miles of territory, it now rules over only tiny pockets of rural land, far from the country’s centers of power. The president maintains that his administration has “beaten” the group.

But Boko Haram continues to rout an under-equipped Nigerian military, and a splinter faction of the group that pledges allegiance to the Islamic State is gaining strength. On Wednesday, gunmen opened fire on a convoy carrying the governor of Borno State, killing at least three people, and many here worry they will attempt to disrupt voting Saturday.

Meanwhile, several other violent conflicts have ballooned under Buhari’s tenure, from brutally violent banditry in the country’s northwest to a separatist movement in its southeast. But perhaps most notable among them is the rise in running battles over access to land between groups of farmers and nomadic herding communities across the country. 

The conflict is concentrated in the country’s diverse and poorly policed Middle Belt, a kind of religious equator running through the center of Nigeria, dividing a mostly-Muslim north from a mostly-Christian south. Conflicts between herders and farmers have intensified as climate change and a rapidly rising population shove them toward each other. In 2018, more than 2,000 people were killed in such conflicts, according to Amnesty International.

Because farmers in many parts of the Middle Belt are largely Christian, and herders largely Muslim, some politicians and media have cast the battle as one for religious survival, particularly for the region’s minority Christian population, long marginalized in local politics. The conflict has drawn national interest, with 71 percent of Nigerians saying they were concerned about the conflict in a 2018 survey by the polling group Afrobarometer.

“Buhari told us his administration has technically defeated the dreaded Boko Haram in the North East and was in the process of ridding the nation of sundry crimes like kidnapping, armed robbery, herders/farmers clashes [but] instead we are witnessing an unfortunate rise in insurgency and other criminal activities,” said John Mamman, national chairman of the Middle Belt Forum, a lobbying group, at a press conference Monday. “I wish to call on President Buhari as an officer and gentleman to publicly apologize to Nigerians for his administration’s abysmal performance.”

But while security seems like an easy place for Mr. Abubakar to score points against his beleaguered opponent, he has shied away from making it central to his campaign.

In large part, this is because it is difficult for either man to wield the conflict as a political weapon against the other, says Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a think tank in Abuja.

Both men are Muslim and ethnically Fulani – the same groups that most herding communities are drawn from – making it hard for either to cast the fighting as the kind of us-versus-them battle that effectively galvanizes voters, she says.

As in many countries, major political candidates here often win voter blocks by sharpening the blurry boundaries between groups of people from different regions, religions, or ethnic groups. That kind of politicking has particular effectiveness, however, in a place like Nigeria, a staggeringly diverse country whose boundaries were carved out not by a shared history, but by British colonialism.

So for many Nigerians, local forms of identity are stronger than any national sense of belonging, which in turn allows politicians to play up divisions. But many wedges typically used to divide voters have been ineffective this time around, says Ms. Hassan, because of the similar backgrounds of the two main candidates.

In the far northern state of Jigawa, for instance, vigilante attacks between farming and herding communities have also spiked in recent years. But there is no political wedge between the two sides in the fighting, both of whom say they ardently support the president. 

“We believe Buhari is the one who can develop our communities,” says Ahmadu Musa, chairman of a local association of herders in the area of Rano.

“Buhari believes in equal justice for all people – that’s why we will vote [for] him,” agrees Ali Mainao, an elder in the nearby farming town of Marma, saying that Buhari’s ban on rice imports has helped them sell their crops for higher prices. Above him, makeshift brooms dangle from ropes strung between houses – the symbol of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress and its promise to sweep away corruption.

“Yes, we need a better solution to what is happening here, but that takes time,” he says. “We need to give him more time.”

Muhammad Reza Suleiman contributed reporting to this story.

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