Old age, hate speech, press freedom: Critical issues in Nigeria's 2019 presidential elections

Voting in progress during Nigeria's presidential election on March 28, 2015, in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo by US Embassy / Idika Onyukwu (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nigeria will hold a presidential election on February 16, 2019, and all eyes are on this election as a test to prove the strength of Nigeria's democratic norms, values and unity.

This year, there are five main candidates in the race out of 73 total presidential candidates. Two major contenders include the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari (All Progressive Congress) and the opposition candidate and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (Peoples Democratic Party).

The other three candidates, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Kingsley Moghalu and Omoyole Sowore, have been termed the “third force” because they lack political experience but still present significant competition.

Amid the cacophony of electoral campaigns and the attendant passion from supporters — both online and offline — here are the key issues that may get lost in the noise.

Old and the strongman syndrome

Nigeria's two major contenders, Buhari, 76, and Atiku, 72, both have long histories of political engagement in Nigeria, leaving many to question their health and longevity as presidential hopefuls.

With the end of longtime rulers like South African President Jacob Zuma, 76, and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, 94, who was forced out of power after 37 years as president, it has felt like an end to regimes led by the old and strong men in Africa. But this hope has not lasted. Paul Biya, 84, was re-elected as president of Cameroon, making him the oldest political leader in sub-Saharan Africa.

The health of Nigeria’s leaders became a major political consideration after late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died in office on May 5, 2010. Yar’Adua's illness and continued absence created a power vacuum because he did not hand it over to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, before he traveled abroad for treatment.

Incumbent President Buhari has made about ten trips to the United Kingdom for medical treatment of an undisclosed ailment. He has spent “more than 170 days in London on official medical leave since becoming president in 2015,” according to the New York Times.

Can younger candidates stand a better chance? This year, there are 10 candidates under the age of 40 and 16 candidates between the ages of 45-49. But younger candidates may not fare well because Nigeria’s long history of military rule has embedded a culture of political actors who have both the clout and wealth to fund party politics and this takes time and connections to cultivate.

Buhari and Abubakar both have strong political bases. Buhari has a loyal following in the northern part of the country, while Abubakar is perceived as widely accepted across different tribes and religions in the country. Their ages do not appear to be a factor in garnering support and loyalty.

Ethnicity and religion

Nigeria is what's known as an ethnic fault line state — ethnicity and religion have long played a central role in elections and general politics. The 2015 elections showed that the two “major contestants received bloc votes from their various states and geopolitical zones,” according to an article in the Journal of African Elections. Also, ethnic sentiments were used to appeal to voters. Ethnocentric hate speech surged both online and offline, before and after the 2015 presidential elections.

Similarly, in 2017, some Nigerian writers raised alarm over the vile ethnic hate speech that almost consumed the nation. Former President Goodluck Jonathan lost in the polls over his failure to handle the Islamic militant group Boko Haram's bombings that rattled the nation and caused widespread insecurity. Boko Haram's abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok led to a global outcry of #BringBackOurGirls when it was clear to citizens that the government was not doing enough to intervene.

Buhari and Abubakar will both rely on ethnic alliances to win votes. Buhari, a northerner (Fulani/Muslim), has retained Yemi Osibanjo as his vice-presidential candidate in order to garner votes from the southwestern (Yoruba/Christian) part of the country. Abubakar, a northerner (Fulani/Muslim) has picked his vice-presidential candidate from the southeastern (Igbo/Christian) part of the country.

Because Buhari and Abubakar are from the same ethnoreligious group, tensions may not be as high as they were in 2015 elections when Jonathan Goodluck, a southern minority Ijaw Christian, ran against Buhari.

Free speech and press freedom

Buhari's administration has been accused of major human rights violations and many hashtags have trended on social media in 2018 calling for the release of detained netizens and journalists.

On March 17, 2016, Nigerian journalist Yomi Olomofe was brutally assaulted and detained by Nigerian police in an attack against free speech. Nigerian journalist Daniel Elombah and his brother, Timothy Elombah, were arrested on New Year's Day 2017 for a story they did not even write. In August that year, Nigerian trader Joe Fortemose Chinakwe was arrested by for naming his pet dog “Buhari”.

Jones Abiri, publisher of Weekly Source, was arrested on July 21, 2016, by state security (DSS) agents at his office in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. #FreeJonesAbiri trended for several days on Twitter until Abiri was released on August 15, 2018, after a two-year detention.

#FreeSamuelOgundipe trended when Nigerian journalist Samuel Ogundipe was detained for three days by Nigeria’s Special Tactical Squad after refusing to name his sources for a story concerning the forceful prevention of lawmakers by security agents from entering the Nigerian National Assembly in early August 2018.

Deji Adeyanju, a political activist and member of the opposition party, was re-arrested in December 2018 and has been in detention since then due to “a fresh petition.”

Buhari has openly expressed his aversion to a free press and freedom of speech. In an address to lawyers last year, he stated that “the rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest.”

On the other hand, Abubakar has promised to run “an inclusive governance structure” that will harness Nigeria's diversity and uphold “a just and fair environment where the rights of all citizens are protected by a transparent government.”

Only time will tell how these issues will unfold throughout the election period and beyond.

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