Political reform takes centre stage in Nigeria

Significant political progress has been made in Nigeria in the last 18 months. The ballot box has taken centre stage as the country has carried out a peaceful handover of power – its first since becoming independent – at both the executive and legislative level. The development is a significant one for this country of 184m people, although the incoming government has a number of pressing issues that need to be tackled ranging from an Islamist insurgency in the north to a bruised oil industry in the south, alongside a slowing economy and depreciating currency.

However, the new administration is rolling out an ambitious package of substantial reforms – from privatisation measures and anti-corruption campaigns to security assistance – that it hopes can help overcome a legacy of poor governance.


The 2015 presidential election was a watershed moment for the country, with the victory of All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate Muhammadu Buhari over Peoples Democratic Party candidate and sitting incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, marking the first time an opposition candidate had been democratically elected to the presidency.

Equally importantly, during a period that saw electoral turbulence elsewhere on the continent, the ballot – which resulted in a 53%-46% victory – was conducted with minimal unrest. While this may seem unremarkable in retrospect, the four other presidential elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999 tell a different story. In 2011 the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan’s victory over Muhammadu Buhari led to violent protests in which over 800 people were killed.

Both candidates sought to defuse tensions in the aftermath of the ballot. Following the announcement of the result the president-elect, Buhari, asked his supporters for “calm, sober celebrations” and said that anyone committing violence “is not with me”. Jonathan also sought to defuse any lingering tensions. In a statement published shortly after the results were declared, Jonathan said, “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian… The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.” A spokesperson for Buhari called Jonathan “a hero” for this statement. This rhetoric sought to avoid the unrest of previous polls, which have had a negative impact on turnout. While turnout in nearby Ghana exceeded 80% in the last presidential elections in 2012, in Nigeria it has hovered around the mid-50s for the previous two elections, dropping to 43% in 2015. In the run-up to the latest ballot, the eighth since independence, a survey by the US-headquartered polling firm Gallup found that only 13% of citizens had confidence in the honesty of the forthcoming elections. This was a sizable drop from 2011 when the figure was 51%.

New Technology 

While the 2015 poll was not without its glitches, several measures were taken to promote stability and reduce fraud. For example, the elections were postponed for six weeks after problems distributing permanent voter cards and because of security concerns about the terrorist group Boko Haram in the north-east of the country.

Although this led to opposition accusations of government political manoeuvring, the majority of the logistical challenges were eventually met to hold a free election. Three days before the scheduled poll, the government took the security measure of closing the country’s land and sea borders and subsequently extended the polling by a day to take account of technical errors with ballot machines. The peaceful election was given a stamp of approval by a number of election monitoring bodies, including those of the African Union, the Commonwealth and ECOWAS. 

Government Agenda 

The election results also highlighted the broad appeal of the APC platform to Nigerian voters. Buhari, a former military general who ruled the country between January 1984 and August 1985 following a military coup, managed to win a substantial share of the vote in diverse states in both the north and the south of the country. In total he won 21 of the country’s 37 states and territories.

Buhari campaigned on a platform of change and reform, focusing on security, anti-corruption and both economic and infrastructure development. Opinion polls suggest that anti-corruption was a determining factor in many voters’ candidate choice, as were concerns about the Boko Haram insurgency, unemployment and the power crisis in the country.


It is perhaps unsurprising then that Buhari’s first 12 months in office have been characterised by attempts to tackle these issues. As a former military general, Buhari has emphasised his ability to deal with the ongoing threat of the Islamist insurgents of Boko Haram. In December 2015 the president told the media that the country had “technically won the war” against the insurgents, following new force deployments and cross-border co-operation against the group (see analysis). However, subsequent guerilla-style attacks and suicide bombings against civilian targets have signalled that there is still work to be done. Yet the government does point out that the group has lost territory and been driven from local government control in the north-east.


Buhari has also taken an aggressive stance on his other key campaign pledges – governance and anti-corruption. His administration has had some early success with an investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission into graft in government, which found that more than $2bn worth of funds destined for arms purchases to fight Boko Haram had gone missing since 2007. As a result of the investigation, several high profile figures, including the former minister of defence and a former national security adviser, have been arrested.

Buhari has also tried to introduce a number of governance reforms to address problems of graft at all levels of government. In January 2016 he urged the National Assembly to pass two pieces of legislation, the Money Laundering Prevention and Prohibition Bill 2016 and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill 2016. The former seeks to institute a more robust regulatory environment for dealing with money laundering, including protections for whistleblowers, an expansion of the range of offences covered under such laws, increased penalties for such crimes, and greater powers and responsibilities for bodies dealing with money laundering. The second bill builds on the first by improving international cooperation in dealing with local money launderers.

Economic Development 

The government’s reform efforts come amidst a challenging macroeconomic background, with drops in foreign exchange and public revenues, lower oil prices and slowing headline growth. The government has pushed for a strong stimulus, with a $25bn infrastructure fund and a budget heavy on spending to boost the economy.


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