In Nigeria, Politics and Militancy Go Hand in Hand

  • Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, whose political coalition and party have suffered dozens of defections in the National Assembly, will face a significant election test in February, when he hopes to win a second term.
  • The country’s main opposition alliance will select a northern presidential candidate to match Buhari; the two sides could split votes in the northwestern areas, making competition elsewhere the deciding factor.
  • Militancy will play a critical role in next year’s elections as Nigeria’s various stakeholders try to exploit the country’s insecurity for political gain.

Editor’s Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor’s upcoming 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments to watch in the coming quarter.

Elections scheduled for February will come into focus as Nigeria enters the final quarter of 2018. President Muhammadu Buhari will be running again, though dozens of defections from his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, have altered the balance of power within the National Assembly and will test his re-election plans. And in Nigeria, politics and militancy go hand in hand, and the country’s leadership at times has tacitly backed, exploited and used insecurity as a political weapon. The close connection between politics and militancy certainly will be a key factor in determining whether Buhari, a former military head of state turned civilian president, will be able to earn a second term.

Nigeria will be focused on upcoming national and state elections over the next six months. And that means the country’s diverse ethnic groups and regions will try to spin the elections in their favor. Exploiting, manipulating and using Nigeria’s insecurity is a key part of that process, which makes the country’s security situation over the next six months especially important.

Politics and Militancy

More than 190 million people are crammed into Nigeria, which is roughly twice the size of California. Although Africa’s most populous country is commonly described as being split roughly in half between the Muslim north and Christian south, this oversimplification ignores the significant divisions between the Kanuri and Hausa ethnic groups in the north and the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw ethnic groups in the south. For a nation-state artificially created in its colonial past, managing these divisions — north-south, east-west, Christian-Muslim — has proved difficult. Between 1966 and 1993, the government was overthrown eight times and several political and military leaders were killed in coups, countercoups and coup attempts as military officers of different backgrounds sought to control and exploit the country for their respective constituencies.

There has not been an attempted coup in Nigeria since it changed to civilian government in 1999. Since then, its political elite has followed an unwritten rule that power should rotate among the country’s diverse population. Nigeria has been effectively split into six geopolitical zones: the North-West, North-East, North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-South. Each region more or less represents a key ethnic group or stakeholder, such as the Yoruba (South-West), Igbo (South-East), Ijaw (South-South), Hausa (North-West) and Kanuri (North-East). Power rotates among these six zones while oscillating between the larger north and south. The vice presidency also rotates among the zones in a way that prevents the north or south from having the presidency and vice presidency at the same time. In theory, this setup ensures that neither the north or south can monopolize power and that each of its eight zones — over the course of 48 years — would control the presidency for eight years and the vice presidency for eight years.

This arrangement has allowed Nigeria to manage some of its flashpoints and allowed for political power to be more balanced. But the country has consistently faced insurgencies and insecurity that various politicians and tribal elders have exploited as they jockeyed for influence and power within this structure. A critical example occurred when Goodluck Jonathan (from the South-South) assumed the presidency in May 2010 after the death of Umaru Yaradua (from the North-West). He and his allies used the Niger Delta insurgency, led by groups like the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and backed to a degree by local politicians, to help secure his term as president in January 2011. Jonathan successfully argued that he, as a son of the Niger Delta, could bring peace to the region through a negotiated settlement and amnesty program.

Buhari had a similar message when he defeated Jonathan in the 2015 presidential election. Jonathan had been criticized in the north and South-West for disrupting the balance of power by running for a second term — for seeking, in effect, more than eight years in office, including his succession after Yaradua’s death. At the same time, the rise of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly and commonly known as Boko Haram, offered the north an opportunity. As the coalition around Jonathan fell apart over his controversial run, most of the northern branch of the PDP allied with Buhari, who promised to defeat Boko Haram and end the corruption that plagued the government run by Jonathan and his Niger Delta allies.

Buhari won the presidency with an alliance between the north and the South-East, but his coalition has proved to be flimsy for several reasons. First, while his anti-corruption campaign has produced some high-profile successes, his critics have accused him of using it to target political opponents, particularly Christian ones in the south. Second, the economy under Buhari has stagnated…

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