Why you should care
A resurgent Boko Haram is striking back with new ruthlessness, undermining Muhammadu Buhari’s claims that the group has been weakened under his regime.
In the early 2000s, hunger used to be the biggest political issue in Nigeria. Before that, in the late 1990s, it was the transition to — and the allure of — democracy. During the 2015 elections to the presidency and parliament, the then opposition, the All Progressive Congress (APC), saw that a new fear called the Boko Haram had gripped the public, even as hunger and poverty were still growing.
The APC built chariots of promises around the public’s desire to deal with the militancy threat and rode to power on it. Four years later, as Nigeria heads to elections again, those promises from 2015 could come back to bite the APC government of President Muhammudu Buhari.
It was a straightforward pitch for the APC in 2015 against the government of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and his People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Buhari, the APC’s flag bearer, was a retired army general with a rich résumé of accomplished campaigns, including from his days as the military head of state in the mid-1980s. For instance, in 1983, when the Chadian army invaded Nigeria, troops under Buhari’s command flushed them out. In 2015, his pitch worked.
“The party projected President Muhammadu Buhari as a military messiah,” says Chikodiri Nwangwu, a political analyst at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. “It largely accounted for the defeat of President Jonathan in 2015. There is no doubt about that.”
It wasn’t just the APC’s projection. Many believed the Jonathan government had shown weaknesses in stamping out an insurgency that escalated in 2009, led to more than 20,000 deaths and plunged the country into a humanitarian crisis with more than a million people displaced, according to the U.N. The public’s confidence faded briskly in the months leading up to the 2015 elections, especially following the 2014 abduction by Boko Haram of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok. It was actually Boko Haram, many experts believe, that defeated Jonathan in 2015.
Politics in Nigeria is about promises. Ideology is idle.
But what about Buhari’s government? It has used — at different times over the past three years — terms such as “technical defeat,” “degradation” and “decimation” to describe its military campaigns against Boko Haram. Yet the reality is different, and just a month before the 2019 elections, Nigeria-based public affairs analyst Abraham Isaac believes the people are aware of the difference.
Corruption in the military has left soldiers ill-equipped. The government has had to face a protest recently in Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria from soldiers upset about the lack of proper equipment at their disposal, and grieving about comrades killed by Boko Haram over the past few weeks. All that’s unfolding as Boko Haram has unleashed attacks with new ruthlessness, killing hundreds of Nigerian soldiers in multiple attacks on different military formations in northeast Nigeria.
“I did not think the government understood the true situation with the insurgents before making those promises [in 2015],” says Isaac. “The promises earned them votes in 2015, but this also meant that the expectations were far more than what the government can deliver.”
The opposition will use that gap between the APC’s promises and its delivery while campaigning for the 2019 elections, he says. Atiku Abubakar, former Nigerian vice president from 1999-2007, is the PDP’s presidential candidate and Buhari’s principal opponent. Buhari has visited Maiduguri to try to contain the brewing crisis, but the situation may have already spun out beyond his or his government’s control, analysts say.
Of course, hunger and poverty — critical and worsening — remain challenges for Nigeria. This year, Nigeria overtook India as home to the biggest population of poor people worldwide, while also battling hunger and inflation. Yet at the same time, Nigeria retains third place in the list of most terrorized countries in the past four years, according to a Global Terrorism Index released by the U.S.-based Institute for Economics and Peace. That alone, says Nwangwu of the University of Nigeria, shows that Boko Haram will wield huge influence in the elections.
For the Buhari government, that’s not good news. “The government promised too much” on a sensitive issue, says Isaac.
And politics in Nigeria is all about promises. The decision to vote for a government does not stem from party ideologies. It comes, rather, from the hopes and needs that the competing parties can identify, magnify and exploit in engaging the electorate. As the elections draw near, a resurgent Boko Haram’s ability to stymie campaigns against it may once again determine the outcome of Nigeria’s elections. Whoever wins this year, Boko Haram hasn’t lost yet.