Democratic Elections in Nigeria

by Stephen D.K. Ellis

Nigeria is due to hold national elections in February 2015.  At stake will be not only the future of the presidency but also seats in the federal parliament and in Houses of Assembly in all 36 of the country’s states—assuming, that is, that elections are possible in the north-east of the country, which is severely troubled by the violent insurgency of Boko Haram.[1] In addition, 29 states will hold elections for the post of state governor. 


The elections are the most unpredictable since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 following fifteen years of military rule.  At every level, there is a serious possibility that the leading opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), could triumph over the incumbent People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has produced the country’s presidents since 1999. 

Most attention in advance of February’s contest is focused on the presidency, and in particular on the question of whether Nigeria’s current head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, will be re-elected.  This is a particularly sensitive matter because President Jonathan is from the South of Nigeria, in a country that has traditionally been polarised.  If Jonathan wins in February he will add a second four-year term to the one he has already served, in addition to the year he previously served as head of state—this came about because Jonathan was serving as vice-president when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died, and Jonathan was officially appointed as interim head of state to replace him in February 2010.  In other words, a victory for Jonathan will give him two-and-a-half presidential terms, so to speak.  If he is re-elected, he will by 2019 have served nine consecutive years in Nigeria’s supreme office.  This is regarded by many people in Northern Nigeria as unacceptable, as the return to democracy in 1999 was accompanied by an unofficial agreement among Nigeria’s political class on the principle known as “zoning”, whereby the presidency was to alternate between the North and South of the country, with no president serving more than two terms.  If Jonathan were to serve a second full term, it would in fact mean that Nigeria would have had a Northern president for only three years out of the twenty since the country’s return to democracy.

President Jonathan’s major challenge in February will come from the veteran presidential challenger Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, making the 2015 contest exactly the same as that in 2011.  Last time round, however, Buhari was the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), an outfit rapidly put together simply to support his presidential bid after he had argued with the barons of the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), at that time the leading party in the North.  The CPC no longer exists.  This time around Buhari is the candidate of an alliance formed in February 2013 from the fusion of the ANPP with the Action Congress of Nigeria and the All Progressives Grand Alliance.  On paper at least, this is a formidable combination as it combines parties with an electoral base in various parts of the country.  However, the APC, on whose behalf Buhari is running for the presidency, is the vehicle for a cohort of regional barons whose ultimate aim is to promote their own political interests. This makes the APC vulnerable to sudden defections, like other Nigerian political parties,  as regional barons calculate where their interest lies at any particular juncture.

Buhari is very much an elder statesman, having served as the chairman of the military junta that governed Nigeria from the end of 1983 to 1985. He has also served as the military governor of the now-defunct North-East State, as oil minister, and as the chief of a body known as the Petroleum Trust Fund, no longer in existence, whose purpose was to  carry out public projects using oil money.  Buhari has a very solid political base in Nigeria’s North, as compared to Jonathan’s perhaps more restricted political base but his incalculable advantage of being an incumbent. 

At its most simple, the Jonathan versus Buhari contest pits Nigeria’s South against the North.  Given the religious affiliations of the two candidates, it also has the potential to pit Christian voters against Muslims.

Last but not least, the fact that the election campaign is taking place in the teeth of the Boko Haram insurgency raises the stakes considerably.  Boko Haram has been responsible for thousands of deaths, is estimated to control some five percent of Nigeria’s national territory, and has enormously embarrassed the country’s security and military forces by their inability to crush the rebellion.  Boko Haram has declared itself to be a caliphate, and has killed probably as many Muslims as Christians.  It poses as many challenges to the North’s Muslim ruling elite as it does to the state of Nigeria itself.  Both the PDP and the APC have contributed to the further politicisation of the Boko Haram phenomenon by accusing each other of complicity with the rebel movement. 


The outlook for 2015

Anyone seeking to analyse the election prospects for 2015 is required not only to study the current line-up and context, but also to take into account the record of Nigeria’s four democratic elections since 1999, as these have established an electoral infrastructure that begins with the relevant legislation, and a pattern of results that can be construed as a track record.

In the matter of legislation, the basic document is Nigeria’s 1999 constitution.  This is a revised version of the country’s 1979 constitution, which was itself based on the US model but with the addition of some specifically  Nigerian features.  The constitution specifies, at section 134 (1), that there are two conditions that a candidate must fulfil in order to win a presidential election.  One of these is to receive a majority of votes cast.  The other is that a successful candidate should receive the votes of a minimum of 25% of registered voters in two-thirds of Nigeria’s states, that is to say in 24 states out of 36.  Failure to do this triggers a second round of elections.

Next to the formal rules, there exists the record of the four national elections since the return to democracy.  During this time it has become clear that possession of the governorship of any particular state confers a substantial advantage on the relevant political party in the presidential contest in that same state.  In other words, governors are effective organisers for their own political parties.  Counting governorships is therefore a crude guide to likely voting intentions as regards the future president, although the situation is somewhat complicated this time round by the scale of defections from one party to another as incumbent governors calculate their best chances of success in 2015. 

If one examines the 2011 election results in individual states, it is apparent that the old cliché of Nigeria being roughly divided into North and South does have some meaning.  A successful presidential candidate indeed needs to have bedrock support in one of these two large regions.  This will remain true in 2015.  The South-East and South-South regions seem firmly under the control of President Jonathan and his PDP party, while the North-East and North-West regions are a bulwark of support for the opposition APC and its presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari.  This is just one aspect of the forthcoming contest where the presence of Boko Haram plays a role: Boko Haram is rampant in the country’s North-East, and if the insurgency prevents the orderly conduct of elections there, or even causes the cancellation of the elections in that region entirely, it will be at the cost of Buhari and his party.  Observations such as this give rise to many of the conspiracy theories doing the rounds about alleged complicity between Boko Haram and leading politicians.

There are other uncertainties about voting in particular states that make the 2015 election rather more complex than its predecessor.  In 2011, President Jonathan and his party won all the south-western states apart from Osun.  This victory, however, was due to an electoral pact between the PDP and the now-defunct Action Congress of Nigeria which ran most South-Western states.  This time around, however, the APC has absorbed the latest party in the regionally strong Action Group tradition.  This means that, barring surprises, Buhari can reasonably expect strong support in Nigeria’s prosperous South-West, the region that includes Lagos.  This is the part of Nigeria whose economic dynamism has caused the influential economist Jim O’Neill, the former head of global economics research at Goldman Sachs, famous for coining the BRICS acronym to describe Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, to place Nigeria in another group that he calls MINT, standing for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.  He considers that Nigeria, on the basis of its young, expanding population and booming consumption, could become a new China.[2]  In other words, the South-West is not only a highly prized region, on account of its prosperity, but could also become an election decider, as both candidates can have a reasonable expectation of doing well there, and adding it to his existing regional heartlands.

A second obvious “swing” region is the North-Centre, where President Jonathan won five out of six states in 2011, with only Niger State in this region being taken by Buhari’s CPC party. The North-Centre is an area where mixed Muslim and Christian populations have sometimes become polarized in the context of bitter local disputes, including the violent cattle-rustling that is endemic in some areas as Muslim cattle-herders clash with a local farming population that is overwhelmingly Christian.  These are the material consequences of rapid population growth and climate change in poor, dry regions where populations live close to the margins of bare existence.  The fact that President Jonathan and his party did so well in this region in 2011 is sometimes ascribed to the fact that the CPC, due to the hastiness with which it was cobbled together, had few party agents in the North-Central states of Kogi, Kwara, Plateau and Benue.  This made it easier for local barons to get out the PDP vote or even to rig votes in favour of Jonathan’s PDP.[3] 

The fate of the North-Centre raises the question of vote-rigging and other electoral malpractice, of which Nigeria has a long history.  In effect, every election since 1999 has been accompanied by a degree of violence that has steadily increased over the years.  Given this pedigree, there are worrying signs that next February’s contest could be the most troubled so far.  In April 2011, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) declared Goodluck Jonathan to have won the presidential poll with 59 percent against Muhammadu Buhari’s 32 percent. Buhari’s supporters in a number of mostly Northern areas went on the rampage, causing widespread violence.  Protest at alleged election-rigging, which appeared to have the tacit approval of the losing candidate, Buhari, soon merged into communal violence in the North of the country, indicating the close connection between religion and political allegiance.  According to Human Rights Watch,[4] the disturbances resulted in more than 800 deaths in three days of rioting in the Northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara.  More than 65,000 people were estimated to have been displaced from their homes.  These events are quite widely perceived to have indicated a deep sense of alienation in the North of Nigeria that goes beyond election contests, and that is a factor in understanding the nature of the threat posed by Boko Haram.

The post-election violence of 2011 was a warning-sign that was largely ignored.  In any event, the elections of that year were probably the bloodiest in Nigeria’s history, as it is estimated that, by comparison, some 300 people died in the 2007 elections and about 100 people died in 2003.[5] In 2003, according to Human Rights Watch a great deal of violence and intimidation went unreported, and the true scale was such as to call into question the credibility of the elections.[6]

Given this history, the situation in advance of the next presidential elections does not bode well.  Insults and accusations are flung at each other by both sides, in an atmosphere made all the more tense by the presence of Boko Haram.  In November 2014, officers of the State Security Service raided an APC data-collection office in Lagos and detained five party workers in an action that was later declared unlawful by a judge of the Federal High Court. [7] This is just one of numerous provocations between the two camps at national level.

Many of the sharpest conflicts, however, are at state and even local level, where electoral contests have sometimes become sharpened by the defection of governors from one party to another and where personal and ethnic rivalries can be extraordinarily sharp.  According to the authoritative International Crisis Group,[8] at least 900 people were killed in communal violence in a swath of states in the first half of 2014.  The same source estimates that states with a particularly high risk of violence include Rivers, Kaduna and Kano.[9]  At this level, many states have a tradition of violent electoral campaigning that embraces organised crime, as it is common in many part of the country for candidates for state governorships to hire armed gangs that they can use as political thugs at election time.  After the elections, the gangsters are left without a patron and can easily revert to professional crime, made all the more complex because of the political connections made by gang-leaders.  This has been a persistent cause of gang violence in the South-South region, where the electoral stakes are particularly high due to the presence of Nigeria’s oil industry, and where criminal gangs are associated with oil-smuggling as well as with regionalist politics that include can include claims in favour of secession.  Something similar seems to be true of Boko Haram, which, according to a government white paper as well as other sources, the turn to violence of an originally non-violent movement took place in the run-up to the 2003 general elections, when a candidate hired Boko Haram as political muscle.[10]  No doubt this historical background is one reason for the persistence of rumours that some Northern politicians continue to have connections to Boko Haram.  Today, the existence of Boko Haram means that the most extreme insecurity is in Nigeria’s North-Eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, which have been under a state of emergency since May 2013 and where the war with Boko Haram has resulted in thousands of deaths and perhaps as many as 750,000 people being displaced.  The chairman of the national elections commission, INEC, has warned that elections may not be possible at all in the affected states.[11]  This is a subject to which we will shortly return.

The worrying signs that electoral violence, mixed with sectarian conflict, may have developed a life of its own, are clearly linked to questions concerning  the organisation and integrity of elections.  International commentators on the 2011 elections generally maintained that the Independent National Electoral Commission, which has supervised every general election since 1999, has improved over the years.  Even if this is an accurate perception, it is far from a clean bill of electoral health, as there has been evidence of rigging at successive elections.  The 2007 elections were particularly flawed, in the opinion of both national and international observers. Particularly concerning was intimidation, which resulted in some 700 violent election-related incidents between November 2006 and March 2007, among them the assassinations of two leading candidates for the position of state governor.  The elections themselves were catastrophic, with even more rigging and violence than during the 2003 presidential election, when polling was marred by stolen ballot boxes and bogus vote counts. The poor organization and oversight of the 2007 election seems to have been in part a calculated attempt by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo to steal the election.  The INEC chair, Professor Maurice Iwu, was appointed by President Obasanjo rather than by any independent body.  The Commission was starved of funds, and in addition it adopted a complex system of electronic voting that did not function well, causing the National Assembly eventually to ban their use.  There were also many controversies surrounding the registration of political parties and of individual candidates. [12] In general, the INEC was so badly run and badly supported that it was possible for votes to be completely fabricated. 

In 2011, by contrast, INEC had developed a new balloting system that included the fingerprinting of 73.5 million voters, open vote-counting and instant communication of results via a network of mobile phone-users.[13]  Yet still there were allegations of vote-rigging sufficient to send rioters onto the streets.  Given the improvement of overall organisation, the main technique for  rigging in 2011 was the manipulation of actual voters, including by abusing their electoral cards, which appears to have been what happened in the North-Central region.  This suggests that during the 2015 election, electoral officials and observers will need to devote particular attention to voter registration and to the counting of votes at local level immediately after a ballot has been held.  

The big question confronting the INEC, then, is how successful it will be this time around. Its chairman since 2010 has been Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, a respected academic who is widely credited with doing a good job in the 2011 elections.  However, this time around may not be as easy, as at the time of writing, the INEC had still not accessed all the 45 billion naira ($272 million) it had been allocated for the elections, which was itself far below what the Commission had requested on the basis of its experience. Many observers are questioning whether INEC will be able to ensure the distribution of ballot papers and equipment in time for the polls and also to ensure the impartial conduct of election personnel.

Finally, another open question concerns the neutrality of the security agencies, which are always liable to manipulation by an incumbent president and that have sometimes been less than judicious in their conduct during election campaigns, particularly at local and regional levels. 


Some election calculations

In 2011, seventeen of the country’s twenty incumbent State Governors were re-elected – exactly 85%, with an average winning vote of 69%, according to detailed calculations made by the academics Zainab Usman and Olly Owen. [14]   This time around, the PDP controls twenty states and can count on the likely  support of two more Governors, from Ondo (Labour) and Anambra (All Progressives’ Grand Alliance), making 22 in total. The APC opposition meanwhile controls fourteen states. These figures could change as alliances continue to be made and unmade. Based on 2011 results, Usman and Owen calculate that in the 2011 elections tenure of a governorship typically brought the incumbent an advantage of 15% when seeking re-election. The marginal advantage of being an incumbent party contesting a “vacant’ seat – “that is, one in which a governor has completed the statutory two terms and is not coming back – was calculated at 11.2%. While these figures concern most directly the chances of election or re-election to a governor’s post, they also have implications for the presidential vote by virtue of the  advantage they bring in presidential campaigning.  Few commentators are bold enough to risk an outright prediction of the results of the 2015 elections, although some suggest that there will be no outright victory for either leading candidate during the first round of presidential elections, necessitating a second round.

Nigerian elections have always been messy and even violent affairs, with a huge amount at stake due to the control that the presidency gives over national oil wealth. As a  prominent academic, Ike Okonta, has noted, politics in Nigeria is “a struggle for control of the country’s oil largesse, which, once secured in the form of loot, is used to further and consolidate political ends.”[15]   Governorship contests follow the same logic, and can also be both massively expensive and hugely rewarding given that some state governors in Nigeria’s south, where the oil comes from, are in control of budgets larger than those of entire West African countries.  This, of course, is in stark contrast to poor states like Borno, which have no oil and which receive much less federal funding: one of the actions of the new civilian government after 1999 was to introduce a revised revenue-sharing system for Nigeria’s 36 federal states, doubling the allocations received from the centre by state and local governments.  Under the current system, the states where oil is produced, in Nigeria’s South-South, receive 13 percent of oil revenues, with the remainder being split between federal, state and local levels of government.  This has left poor states such as those in the North-East out in the cold, which is a key reason for the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency.

While Nigeria’s elections are never clean and tidy, they have in the past allowed for some sort of normal political life to resume in their aftermath.  Some international observers are less sanguine this time around, as the unpredictability of the electoral contest added to the existence of the Boko Haram factor makes for a rather unsavoury brew.


About the author:   Stephen D.K. Ellis is an historian and Africa specialist of global reputation, with a broad range of interests in contemporary history, politics and security. He is currently Desmond Tutu professor in the social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden. 

About Thesigers: Thesiger & Company (‘Thesigers’) is a British research and advisory firm.  Registered office: 27 Old Gloucester Street, London, WC1N 3AX, England. Company registered in England and Wales.  Company registration number: 07234402. VAT number: GB 135658985. Email:

© THESIGER & COMPANY LIMITED (‘THESIGERS’) 2010-2013.  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of this essay is authorized without prior permission of the publisher. Permission to republish in whole or in part will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and may require payment of a licensing fee.



[1] Boko Haram is a popular nickname in the Hausa language.  The movement’s proper title is “Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad,” or  “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad”.

[2] “Nigeria: Africa’s Hope”, [accessed 8 October 2014].

[3] Mark Amaza, ”What chance for Buhari? Fourth Time’s the Charm for The General”, [accessed 16 December 2014].

[4] [accessed 16 December 2014].

[5] Dorina Bekoe, “Nigeria’s 2011 Elections: Best Run, but Most Violent”, United States Institute of Peace, Peacebrief No.103, [accessed 16 December 2014].

[6] “Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence” (New York, 2004): [accessed 16 December 2014].

[7] [accessed 15 December 2014]

[8] International Crisis Group, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence (Africa report no.220, 21 November 2014), p.15.

[9] Ibid., p.17.

[10] [accessed 16 December 2014]

[11] “2015: INEC Rules out Election in States Under Emergency Rule”,  This Day, 17 December 2013.

[12] Jean Herskovits, “Nigeria’s Rigged Democracy”, Foreign Affairs, July-August 2007.

[13] “Democracy 1, Vote-rigging 0”, The Economist, 14 April 2011.

[14] The following analysis relies heavily on Zainaab Usman and Olly Owen’s calculations: [accessed 15 December 2014].

[15] “Nigeria: Chronicle of a Dying State”, Current History (May 2005), p.205.