Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

“Every day, the struggle of the Nigerian people is How do we reclaim the potential of our country?

Nigerian novelist Okey Nbide

What the 2015 Nigerian Elections Mean for Nigeria, Africa, and the Global War on Terror

Event Recap

“We need a country that resembles a nation.”

This sentiment, expressed by Nigerian novelist Okey Nbide, was revisited and reanalyzed by three panelists on April 7 during a discussion titled “Elections in the Midst of Boko Haram Insurgency.” The lecture explored the victory of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari in the recent Nigerian elections. 

With a population of more than 170 million, Nigeria is Africa's largest economy and most populous country. The 2015 presidential election, which pitted Goodluck Jonathan, from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), against Muhammadu Buhari, from the newly formed All Progressives Congress (APC), has been plagued by the questions of how to deal with Boko Haram and the rampant corruption of the Nigerian government.

Okey Nbide, currently visiting assistant professor in Africana Studies, said, “Every day, the struggle of the Nigerian people is How do we reclaim the potential of our country?

That potential, according to Nbide, is blocked by “pernicious and contemptible corruption” that has shaped – or misshaped – the destiny of the country.

Nigeria’s previous president, Goodluck Jonathan, whom Nbide has refused to address as president but instead as “usurper” in his writing, was seen as humble because he admitted to irregularities in his own administration. The fact that he did not feel pressured to step down but instead was hailed as an outstanding statesman, reveals Nigerians’ extremely low standards when it comes to corruption, says Ndibe.

The novelist’s critical stance does not diminish his pride that “in the first time in the country’s 55-year history, an incumbent president [has] successfully been removed from presidency.” However, he does not see the newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, as the answer to Nigeria’s problems.

To Nbide, “any angel, despite their pure sentiment, will become corrupt.” The only way that Buhari will succeed in fulfilling his promises to the Nigerian people, he says, is if he begins the process of restructuring Nigeria, which currently is “a country that doesn’t make sense at all.”

Taking a step back from the “apocalyptic narrative” – according to moderator Patricia Agupusi, postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute – was the second speaker, Darren Kew, of Umass Boston.

Kew, recently returned from a trip to Nigeria, where he worked as an election monitor for the 2015 elections, talked about the reasons for the PDP’s loss. 

According to him, the APC’s huge success was due mainly to the fact that “the North felt that things weren’t going their way, and that the Jonathan administration was against them.”

Furthermore, “working against the PDP’s side was a general exhaustion, and a feeling that Jonathan’s administration hadn’t fulfilled its promises, so its supporters stayed home.” In comparison, APC supporters came out to vote in droves. 

In Kew’s view, “there is massive corruption, there is comfortable corruption, and then there is no corruption. This election falls into the comfortable corruption zone.” Although there is evidence that the PDP approached first the judiciary and then the military to shut down the elections because the party knew it would lose, it was refused both times. Kew considers this an important sign of “some institutional strength.”

When asked, “Did Boko Haram affect the 2015 elections?” Kew said, “The interesting point is how little it affected the election in terms of election day.

The third speaker, Paul Lubeck, senior research professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, detailed the reforms needed in Nigeria’s northern states to fight Boko Haram from the bottom up.

To the question, “Exactly what is Boko Haram?” Lubeck replied, “Boko Haram is really the response to the immense political, religious, and economic crisis of the North.”

In Northern Nigeria, which accounts for 78 percent of the country’s population, a booming population lives in squalid conditions. The demographic explosion of the Sharia states, where women on average have 7.5 children, guarantees waves of urban youths in cities who are only taught in Qurʾānic schools, and who see massive inequality in their everyday lives and a crippled economy. According to Lubeck, it’s the ideal location for producing Boko Haram fighters. 

Lubeck suggested steps that Buhari must take to fight Boko Haram: institutionalize the education of poor children currently being taught in Qurʾānic schools, increase access to education for girls, and invest in the economic recovery of the North.

“I think Boko Haram is defeatable,” Lubeck concluded, “but there needs to be a strategy to acquiring investment to give people hope and allow Buhari to reestablish governance in the North and improve livelihoods.”

During the Q&A, Nbide supported Lubeck’s point about education. “Boko Haram is driven by this great hostility by Western education, but the answer is Western education,” Ndibe said. He pointed out that the children taught by the Qurʾānic schools do not have the skills to live in modernity. According to him, if everyone had access to Western education, not only would corruption decrease, but the number of Boko Haram fighters would dry up.

All three panelists agreed that, despite the inherent problems with the Nigerian government and the immense challenge of restructuring, they are hopeful about Buhari’s election and are eager to see how he will go about fulfilling his promises to the Nigerian people.

-Alisa Yuasa ‘15 

This event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, the Dean of the College, and the Watson Institute

Watch the webcast of the event