At a campaign rally in Abuja last week’s Thursday, Information Minister Lai Mohammed very much stated that Boko Haram is as great a threat today as it has ever been.
“As our gallant men and women in uniform clear the remnants of the home-grown insurgency called Boko Haram, they are confronting a fresh crisis, global insurgency,” Mohammed said. “A faction of the Boko Haram sect has aligned with the global terror group, ISIS, to form ISWAP, the Islamic State’s West African Province. … In other words, ISIS now has a strong foothold in West Africa – with Nigeria in the forefront of the battle against them.”
With elections just days away, this is the closest that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has come to admitting that the war against Boko Haram is exactly where it was in 2015. In fact, as Lai suggests, the situation is much direr.
“Unlike what we had then, these terrorists are not the rag-tag army of 2009,” Mohammed said. “They are tested fighters. They are highly sophisticated terrorists.”
And so Lai has launched a campaign to rally public support for the military, a campaign that can hardly be distinguished from that for his boss’s re-election. His comments are an acknowledgment of what has been widely reported by the domestic and international press: that Boko Haram is now taking the battle to Nigerian forces and winning again.
“Last year the Islamic State-linked extremists roared back, attacking military bases, resupplying and causing a rare government admission of dozens of soldier deaths,” the Associated Press reported recently. “Shaken, officials said the extremists had begun using drones, indicating links with ISIS fighters fleeing collapsing strongholds in Syria and Iraq.” The AP cites the leader of the US Africa Command as saying that the new insurgents are triple the size of Boko Haram as they have been known.
For the first time since the Buhari administration took office it has turned away from the braggadocio that Boko Haram has been defeated, except for remnants that needed to be flushed out. It has finally conceded failure and worry. And that adds to the list of unfulfilled major campaign promises.
Given that the economy and insecurity have both worsened since Buhari took office, that corruption remains entrenched and, above all, that the fabric of Nigerian unity has taken the severest jolt since the civil war, it would seem that the administration has flatly failed. In effect, Buhari’s record can’t seriously be said to be any better than that of then President Goodluck Jonathan at this time in 2015, a record that caused an all-out blitz for his defeat.
Not surprisingly, the western governments who flocked to Buhari’s candidacy in 2015 have now abandoned him. And irony of ironies, Buhari’s people now complain about foreign interference.
First, it was Kaduna State Governor Nasir el-Rufai threatening that foreigners who “interfere” with the elections will leave the country in body bags. It was an incredibly intemperate statement from which the administration would have dissociated itself from. Instead, they defended it.
To buttress el-Rufai’s warning, the All Progressives Congress campaign spokesman Festus Keyamo went on the offensive against international calls for a fair election. Such calls, he complained, constitute tacit support for Peoples Democratic Party candidate Atiku Abubakar.
Yet, in 2014/15, western governments repeatedly expressed concern for fair elections. And no less a figure than then US Secretary of State John Kerry personally brought that message to Nigeria in a visit that included a meeting with then candidate Buhari. Had el-Rufai’s threat been implemented then, Kerry would have been killed and Nigeria would have been in much deeper trouble than it is today.
Keyamo also complained that Atiku was granted visit to the United States. But during the campaign for the 2015 election, candidate Buhari visited the United States and UK multiple times and was treated like a crown prince. In the UK in particular, he was given the closest thing to royal treatment next to lodging in Buckingham Palace. It is remarkable that the heat of a presidential campaign can cause such a deficit in the sense of history —in this case, very recent history.
In any case, while the objective realities would point to an electoral loss by Buhari — just as the case with Jonathan — the polls seem to suggest differently. Though they generally don’t provide percentage breakdowns for the major candidates, they have consistently pointed to a Buhari victory. (I couldn’t verify a figure published in a partisan outlet.) The most credible estimates point to a close contest and the projections are based on the number of registered voters in states that are mostly pro-Buhari or pro-Atiku.
There are at least three factors that make any projections unreliable. The first is the high number of undecideds: just one-third of voters nationwide say they are certain whom they would vote for. And the percentage of undecideds is much higher in pro-Atiku states, especially the southern states. Undecideds usually make up their minds in the last minutes. Some actually already knew whom they would vote for but play coy to opinion polltakers. This would suggest a last-minute surge for Atiku.
In the South-East in particular, there is an understandable reluctance to seem enthusiastic for any candidate given the Biafra advocacy. Voters there are more likely to play coy with polltakers even when they have decided whom to vote for.
And then there is a new dimension in Nigerian elections: the increased number of young voters resulting from the decrease in the voting age. This would probably break favorably in favour of Atiku. Though he and Buhari are close in age, he exudes much more vigour and has played up his youthfulness during the campaign.
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Regardless of who wins the election, there is the heartening development that Nigerians’ faith in the electoral process has increased considerably. In 2014, only 13 per cent of Nigerians believed in the country’s electoral system, according to the Gallop polls. That surged to 34 per cent in 2018, thanks to the reasonably clean election of 2015.
Whether that trajectory is sustained will depend on whether the elections are seen to meet or exceed the standards set in 2015. That would mean a lot more to Nigeria than who wins or loses.