Nigerian security trumps democracy

Boko Haram is a key variable that will determine the outcome of Nigeria’s election.

Goodluck Jonathan
Goodluck Jonathan prays during a rally in Kano [AFP]

This year’s Valentine’s Day will now be observed in Nigeria free from the destruction of the electoral contest. In a move that triggered major controversy and debate, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) of Nigeria announced the postponement of the national elections originally set for February 14, to March 28. 

The elections are said to be unlike any other that Africa’s most populous nation has had in its history. Unlike previous elections in which the opposition has been deeply divided and the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) enjoyed electoral dominance, most opposition parties have now come together under the All Progressive Congress (APC). To the excitement of the gods of democracy, this has made this year’s elections the most competitive in the history of the country.

According to the latest opinion poll involving 2,400 prospective voters from across the country, the percentage of voters who said they would vote for each party is equal at 42 percent. It is accordingly, the very first time in Nigerian history that the incumbent is faced with a clear danger of losing out to the opposition.

Mounting discontent

For the incumbent, there is no worse time to face such a formidable electoral challenge than this. It came at a time when there is mounting discontent in Nigeria over the government’s (mis)handling of the Boko Haram insurgency that has continued to devastate northern Nigeria for over five years. 

Inside Story – Why is Nigeria postponing its general election?

Since 2014, the group’s attacks have assumed a new level of destructive force in which civilians have become the victims. According to the Council on Foreign Relation’s Nigeria Security Tracker, Boko Haram-related violence claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in 2014.

Having seized about 70 percent of Borno state and many towns and villages in Yobe and Adamawa, Boko Haram has, since mid-2014, captured a large swath of territory equal to the size of Belgium.

In a change of electoral fortune, APC’s presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria with strong backing in the mostly Muslim north and helped by Nigerians’ desire for firm action against Boko Haram, seems poised to avenge his loss of the 2011 elections against PDP’s flag bearer the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. 

Security trumping democracy

Security has thus become the major issue of the electoral contestation. What more opportune moment for the Nigerian army to launch a military offensive against Boko Haram than during the coming six weeks?

The INEC rejected an earlier call by the president’s security adviser for postponement of the elections to allow enough time for finalising preparations. Yet, with the security agents stating in a letter that the military could not provide security if the elections were held as originally planned, the INEC decided to postpone the elections. The reason is obvious. To paraphrase: “It is the security, stupid.”

It is a case of security trumping democracy. Although much of the blame for the postponement is to be placed on the security establishment, it did not leave the INEC untouched.


The INEC is responsible for conducting the election but depends on the security institutions for safeguarding the security of the polls. In “prioritising” the fight against Boko Haram at this particular time over the provision of security for the elections as originally planned, the military practically vetoed the INEC in determining the timing of the election.

It is a case of security trumping democracy. Although much of the blame for the postponement is to be placed on the security establishment, it did not leave the INEC untouched.

The opposition candidate put the independence of the INEC in question when he blamed the postponement on the ruling party. The extent of the damage to the INEC currently remains unknown.

Security concerns

It has become increasingly clear that Boko Haram is a key variable that will determine the outcome of this election. The humanitarian impact of the group’s attacks, particularly the growing number of refugees and internally displaced persons may mean that millions of people in APC stronghold territories may not be able to participate in the election.

INEC was unlikely to hold elections in Boko Haram controlled territories of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa.

Although much of the insecurity is believed to have put Buhari more at a disadvantage than Jonathan, the suicide bomber that struck minutes after the president left a rally in the northern city of Gombe was a clear sign that Boko Haram was capable of wrecking havoc even for the incumbent and outside of the three most affected territories.

Although there certainly is a need for action against Boko Haram including through deploying more troops to the three affected territories, the postponement of the elections was not seen as convincing. “It is critical,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement, “that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process”.

If the military victory that eluded the Nigerian army for the past five years is not secured during the next six weeks, Jonathan may not have the good luck of avoiding what he feared for Valentine’s Day from happening on March 28.

Unless of course his PDP uses the six weeks to resorts to what Paul Collier calls in his provocative book “Wars, Guns and Votes” as “socially dysfunctional strategies of vote winning”.

Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African international affairs who writes on current African issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa office.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.