Nigeria Briefing: Election Prospects 2015

by Stephen D.K. Ellis

The following summary brief was originally drafted in January 2014. It is provided here as a courtesy to current and prospective Thesigers clients. For more in-depth and up to date reporting and analysis, contact us directly.



    In 1999, Nigeria became a multi-party democracy for the third time since independence in 1960.  Periods of civilian rule have been interspersed with long periods of military rule. During this time, some clear patterns have emerged.

    First, the lections are not open contests of popularity in the normal sense.  They are rituals giving some legitimacy to elite pacts that have been made in the pre-election period.  Nigeria is a country with 175 million people and its political elite is correspondingly large and complex, including as it does not only the frontline politicians who contend for office but also the political financiers and king-makers often known in Nigeria as “godfathers”, serving and former military officers, traditional rulers and others.  Some of the above have national powerbases, others local ones.  Elections are heavily rigged and sometimes quite violent.  Election-rigging is not a scientific business and varies from state to state, meaning that national outcomes can vary quite considerably even within the limits of the pre-existing political pacts. Nobody can belong to Nigeria’s political class without having very substantial wealth.  Wealth is very often the product of earlier tenure of political or governmental office.  In any event, it is very difficult to become rich without having excellent political protection, at the very least.

    Second, oil is central to the tenure of political power. As Ike Okonta has written, politics in Nigeria is “itself 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.  In this struggle, the state and the means of violence at its disposal are the ultimate spoils”. Oil smuggling is only one form of organized crime in which leading politicians and public functionaries may have a vested interest

    Third, the political bargaining necessary to reach the consensus required for holding an election at all, and leading to the formation of a new administration, can be aggressive.  Sometimes it threatens to spin out of control.  Sponsorship of organized criminal gangs, encouragement of ethnic and religious conflict, threats of secession and ethnic blackmail are all quite conventional tactics.  Occasionally, even political assassination may also be used.  For this reason, Nigerian politics often seem more alarming at first sight than is really the case: the country often seems to be on the verge of some truly catastrophic conflict, yet with the exception of the civil war of the 1960s Biafra war, this has never quite happened.  Illusions of imminent disaster are by the rough and tumble nature of political bargaining by elites and sub-elites. Still, one day some major political block may one day miscalculate, causing a genuine emergency.  This is the greatest threat to Nigeria’s stability.

    Nigeria is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.  Combined with its rapid population growth, its consistently high Growth Domestic Product is causing some influential commentators—notably Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs guru who coined the BRICS epithet—to see Nigeria as a future economic giant [].



    In these circumstances, the following aspects seem necessary for analysis of possible scenarios following the 2015 elections:

    • Party politics: President Goodluck Jonathan’s governing PDP party is under serious threat from the opposition APC. Analysis is required not only of the changing fortunes of the two parties but also of their composition.
    • Oil.  Nigeria’s politics and its stability are so closely related to the price of oil that this requires its own analysis.  What are the likely political consequences of high or low oil prices, and of exceptionally high or low levels of oil theft?
    • Security.  The centre-south, the main centre of oil production, has for many years been subject to violence that is closely related to electoral competition.  This requires analysis.  However, in recent years a threat has also arisen in northeastern Nigeria especially from the Islamist movement known as Boko Haram. Opinions on the latter are divided, but it seems to be a somewhat disaggregated network or set of networks that does have some relationship with Islamist movements outside Nigeria.  Attacks by Boko Haram and counterinsurgency efforts have together led to thousands of deaths in recent years.  While Nigeria is accustomed to violent movements of contestation of various sorts, the nature and scale of Boko Haram-related violence are exceptional.  This too will require serious consideration.

    In short: the key questions are (a) to know whether the situation regarding oil and security in particular are so exceptional as to threaten Nigeria’s particular brand of politics as usual ; and (b) to analyse the emerging electoral contest with a view to predicting possible outcomes.


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