In many ways, the leadup to Nigeria’s February 2015 elections is a familiar sight to any political observer, with ads blaring nonstop on national media as candidates squabble about the issues. Yet one oddity drastically separates the African country’s election from those the Western world are used to; only one month out, it remains uncertain if the election will even happen at all.
This is not an outlandish observation considering the security crisis in Northeast Nigeria with Boko Haram and the perennial underfunding of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC). But, more directly, there are two provisions of Nigeria’s 1999 constitution capable of being exploited to either undermine the integrity of the presidential election or postpone it completely. In a country polarized between two major parties, the invocation of either of these provisions is capable of devolving Nigeria into chaos.
The first of these provisions is section 135(3), providing the president emergency powers to extend his tenure for up to six months at a time with legislative approval if “the Federation is at war in which the territory of Nigeria is physically involved and the President considers that it is not practicable to hold elections.”
The other provision, 134(2), obliges a presidential candidate to obtain not just a majority vote but also “not less than one-quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two-thirds of all the States in the Federation” in order to win. When these two provisions are weighed alongside the continuing Boko Haram war in the Northeast that has displaced countless citizens, the possibilities for election tampering or even postponement are quite worrying.
The emergency provision essentially acts as a political safety net the incumbent president can utilize for either genuine security concerns or selfish ones. As an unpopular president who is unwilling to face an election against a strong contender, Goodluck Jonathan may just stall the election for a few more months until his public image improves. Furthermore, the National Assembly, a legislature full of incumbents that have historically been cooperative with the president, with the exception of minor tussles, may be likely to support an extension of his presidential tenure.
But even should the president not invoke the tenure extension and the election is held as scheduled, the second provision is likely to lead to a different type of trouble because of the continuing Boko Haram war and ambiguity in interpreting the constitutional requirement for the territorial votes. With Boko Haram occupying a number of territories in the Northeast, it remains unclear how INEC will decide what constitutes the votes cast in “two-thirds of all the States in the Federation” if voters face intimidation or polling places are attacked.
Nigeria is no stranger to these electoral concerns. The 1979 presidential election of Shehu Shagari lead to a controversial Supreme Court challenge that has created much of the ambiguity surrounding 134(2) today. Shagari won a majority of the popular vote but failed to achieve one-quarter of the vote in two-thirds of the states, as the constitution required. Nevertheless, the Court ruled Shagari the rightful winner, leaving many to speculate to what degree 134(2) matters at all today. This opens the possibility for another unilateral decision on the election’s outcome by the high court should problems arise. The sad fact is, should the elections proceed, the will of the people in the Northeast may be annulled by the judiciary unless INEC is able to ascertain reliable tallies of votes cast in the Boko Haram-occupied states and prove that elections were conducted properly.
So many unknown variables are at play in the buildup to next month’s scheduled election. At worst, the vote could also be completely nullified by military power, as was done in 1993 when the brutal regime of Sani Abacha took power during a transition period and discarded the results of an election earlier that year. Sadly, might still makes right in many parts of Nigeria today.
If any of these outcomes should arise, it is safe to assume that the Nigerian public will react negatively to its announcement. Considering these troubling possibilities, it is surprising that the Nigerian public is yet to put some focus on these issues, making it even more necessary for the direct stakeholders — the presidency, the political parties and the electoral commission — to present a consensus policy that would forestall future misunderstandings.