Nigerian officials decided Saturday to postpone federal elections amid increasing violence from Boko Haram that’s killed thousands and displaced more than a million people.
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and challenger Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator of Nigeria, now have six more weeks to continue their campaigns, while officials distribute voter cards and security forces carry out a “major military operation” against the insurgency in the northeast.
But six weeks isn’t nearly enough to tackle the challenge of the militant Islamist group -- and that isn’t the only problem candidates will face as they campaign to lead Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy.
Nigeria also is facing the shock of a 50 percent fall in oil prices over the past year, systemic corruption and high poverty levels. Those problems have been largely eclipsed by the Boko Haram crisis, but still await the election’s victor.
“There are some very serious issues that are not given adequate attention because of the overarching problems with security,” said Ibrahim Haruna Hassan, a senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Jos. “These problems have been overtaken by the greater problem of Boko Haram so this is something that will need to be addressed after.”
Even before the vote was pushed from Feb. 14 to March 28, this year’s election was expected to be the closest since Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999.
Jonathan, of the People’s Democratic Party, hails from the country’s predominantly Christian south. He has taken credit for the booming economy, which overtook South Africa last year to become biggest on the continent. But he has also come under increasing criticism for widespread corruption and failure to handle the radical Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram.
His opponent is Gen. Buhari of the All Progressives Congress, a military ruler during the 1980s who comes from the mostly Muslim north and has a large youth following. Many of those followers are too young to remember the “War Against Indiscipline” during his rule, a campaign in 1984 and 1985 that included human rights abuses, and instead are drawn by his pledge to stamp out corruption and use the recovered public money to fund vast welfare policies.
But economics are complicated by the price of oil, especially in Nigeria.
“I think the elephant in the room here is a $50 oil price,” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, managing director of the Lagos-based Centre for Public Policy Alternatives. “Politicians are making promises to create programs that people are demanding, but where are they going to find the money to make it happen?”
Nigeria is the fourth-largest oil exporter in the world. Earnings from vast reserves in the Niger Delta account for about 70 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of foreign currency income, according to Bloomberg. These exports have buoyed Nigeria’s economic growth over the past decade.
But global oil prices have fallen by more than 50 percent in recent months, bringing Nigeria’s currency and expected GDP growth along for the ride. The naira has fallen 18 percent since November, sliding to a record low of 196.5 against the dollar on Monday. The International Monetary Fund recently cut this year’s economic growth forecast for Nigeria from 7.3 percent to 4.8 percent.
“In the short run, nothing is as important as managing the transition to lower oil prices,” said John Ashbourne, an economist specializing in Africa at Capital Economics in London.
“The oil sector provides the vast majority of both government revenues and export earnings, and lower prices are forcing a budget review while clobbering the currency,” he noted. Though oil prices have recovered slightly in recent days, it’s unlikely they’ll go anywhere near the levels that so fueled Nigeria’s economic rise.
And while other sectors are developing slowly, the transition won’t be easy, especially given the country’s notorious rates of theft and corruption.
It currently ranks 136 out of 175 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which notes that “despite claims by the government to make tackling corruption a priority, too few people have been held to account for a series of high-profile scandals.”
The most famous of these happened just last year, when Nigeria’s central bank governor Lamido Sanusi wrote to the president, alleging that billions’ worth of oil revenue was unaccounted for by the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Soon after, Jonathan dismissed him on allegations of “financial recklessness.”
“It’s obviously really important given the scale of the allegations made by a former central bank governor,” said Barnaby Pace, Nigeria analyst at the London-based global corruption watchdog Global Witness.
Many have requested that the government publish details of an internal audit of this and other high-profile incidents, while journalists continue to question whether military officials are siphoning funds meant for troops fighting Boko Haram.
Nigeria also has a continuing problem with oil theft, losing roughly 10 percent every year. The money recovered could be indeed used to fund government programs, or just pay people their salaries. Some civil servants have gone months without getting paid, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“There is a sense that the gains from high oil prices from the last few years have not been broadly distributed,” said Chris Ngwodo, a Nigerian blogger and political analyst. “Nigeria has grown even more unequal and the gap between the wealthiest section and the working class and the poor has widened considerably.”
Throughout Nigeria’s economic rise, its youth unemployment rate has stayed flat since the 1990s. Between 7 and 8 percent of adults don’t have a job, and that jumps to between 13 and 14 percent for youth aged 15-24, according to the World Bank. Nearly a third of Nigeria’s people still live below the poverty level.
“In my view the Jonathan administration has lost some credibility on its claims of competent economic management,” Ngwodo said, adding that, while Buhari’s promise to fill economic holes by cutting off public corruption “does have some merit given the fiscal reality, a Buhari government would still have to skillfully manage expectations so as to avoid a popular disenchantment.”
Some observers, like the Atlantic Council’s Peter Pham, have argued that the election could actually be an opportunity for Nigeria to tackle its enormous problems.
“If Nigeria comes out of this, it will be an excellent example,” said the University of Jos’s Hassan. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”