Nigerian Voters Prepare for Tense Polls Amid Supreme Court Chief Suspension Crisis

Nigeria’s general elections are now only weeks away and the two largest parties are again jostling for control of the presidency, federal parliament and state governorship. However, President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent suspension of the supreme court chief has triggered a constitutional crisis that is likely to either scuttle the polls or severely undermine their credibility.

The most keenly watched will be the presidential election mainly between President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Voters will be choosing between continued statism under the current administration and the prospect of market-driven reforms promised by PDP’s Atiku—¬who appears more likely to win, having gained the backing of key decision-makers. Power may change hands at the center, but political conditions will remain fairly constant at the regional level.

Key Election Issues

There have been multiple protests in the country since President Buhari unilaterally suspended the Supreme Court Chief Walter Onnoghen on 25 January for allegedly false declaration of assets. Most stakeholders, including parliament and the Nigerian Bar Association, have described the move as unconstitutional. From our vantage point in Lagos, public mood in the country is sober.

Arguably, the chief justice’s removal is an attempt to influence the supreme court’s judgement ahead of an impending electoral dispute. Indeed, Onnoghen wasn’t Buhari’s choice. Rather, in 2017, it was Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who nominated Onnoghen while Buhari was on extended sick leave. The supreme court is a focal point, because three out of Nigeria’s last five presidential elections have been challenged at the supreme court.

Meanwhile, other election issues are focused on the economy, security and corruption—none of which the incumbent government has tackled well.

  • Economic growth has been sluggish since the recession ended in 2017. The unemployment rate is nearly 25%. Civil servants often go months without pay in many states, and labor unions have been demanding higher wages amid double-digit inflation. A 50kg bag of rice, a local staple, now costs about NGN14,000—around twice the price it was just three years ago.

  • At the same time, security forces have been grappling with a Boko Haram resurgence plus another deadly conflict involving farmers and herdsmen in the central north. Indeed, there has been an exponential rise in the number of attacks between the two groups, increasing by a factor of 10 in the last five years .

  • President Buhari promised to fight corruption when he came into power in 2015, but cases (mostly against opposition figures) have stalled partly due to weak prosecution and the administration’s inadequate compliance with procedure. In the case against ex-security chief Sambo Dasuki, for instance, this month the court refused to continue the case after the government declined a court order granting the accused bail. The accused had been in detention since 2015.

Meanwhile, those in the ruling party allied to the president have faced less scrutiny. For instance, in February 2018 the president reinstated the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) chief Usman Yusuf, who was being probed and had been suspended by the health minister for alleged fraud. When the NHIS board again suspended him in October 2018, he tried to continue in office anyway, with the support of the police. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission did not investigate or prosecute the matter.

A PR strategist for PDP, told us in Lagos, “Even businessmen who want to donate to our campaign legitimately are hesitant to do so, for fear of government harassment. This is because you risk being targeted by state institutions if you’re considered to be a threat to the administration or to be aiding the opposition.

“That’s why we’re not confident that this poll will be conducted fairly. What we’re banking on is that the Nigerian people will vote us so overwhelmingly that this will cancel out any rigging.”

Key Players

  • Muhammadu Buhari: President and candidate of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC)

President Buhari is seeking re-election amid speculation about his ill-health following a protracted sick leave in 2017 for an undisclosed ailment. But his government has put considerable energy into expanding transport infrastructure and running welfare programs, such as those offering microloans to traders and providing low-income jobs to graduates. However, his administration has been decidedly statist, notably refusing to allow electricity firms to set prices and instead paying them subsidies from an intervention fund. These businesses have consequently been struggling to stay afloat due to revenue shortages, and the 2016 foreign exchange restrictions (inspired by the president) left many foreign firms unable to repatriate profits.

  • Atiku Abubakar: Former VP (1999 to 2007) and candidate of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP)

Atiku quit the ruling party and rejoined the PDP in 2017, skipping ahead of Senate President Bukola Saraki and Sokoto State Governor Aminu Tambuwal to emerge as the party’s candidate for the presidency. The businessman has promised liberal reforms similar to those enacted between 1999 and 2007 when he was VP during Olusegun Obasanjo’s PDP-led administration. At the time he oversaw the privatisation of key sectors such as telecom, but past corruption claims against him blemish that track record.

  • Olusegun Obasanjo: Former president (1999 to 2007)

The power of this pre-eminent ex-army chief and former president continues to sway election outcomes. Obasanjo’s organised the first presidential election in 1979 as a military dictator. His own eight-year tenure as elected president (1999 to 2007) helped stabilise the country after a long spell of army regimes. Since his final term, every candidate he’s backed has gone on to win the presidency. This time, he’s backing Atiku.

  • Mahmoud Yakubu: Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)

INEC’s performance under Mahmoud has been less positive than it was under his predecessor Attahiru Jega. Recent polls have been marred by rigging and violence. The commission has notably been criticised for its role in two governorship elections held last year, where electoral officials looked on as political agents bribed voters and physically blocked opposition supporters from voting. Yakubu has assured that those issues are being addressed, but news that the commission assigned a relative of President Buhari to head its collation unit has again stoked doubts.


Parliament is challenging the suspension of the chief justice at the supreme court. This lawsuit and the ensuing instability could result in the postponement of the polls. In any case, the recent governorship polls indicate that both top parties will attempt to rig this presidential poll in states that they control, and the outcome will be challenged no matter who is announced as the winner. This portends violence during and after the poll, with flashpoints including Rivers, Kano, and the central north. A rerun in some states (due to disorder) and a lengthy supreme court dispute are other likelihoods to bear in mind.

The party that wins the presidency will also likely win a parliamentary majority; reason being, presidential and parliamentary polls are held simultaneously and voters tend to vote the same party for these posts. The outcome of the governorship elections will likely be that each of the two top parties retain control in the regions that they presently control e.g. APC runs all six states in the southwest, while PDP runs five out of six states in the south-south. The probable implication is that power may change hands at the centre, but political conditions will remain fairly constant at the regional level. With that said, in terms of governing programme:

  1. Buhari’s ‘Next Level’ manifesto suggests his next term would focus on sustaining energy subsidies and creating more state jobs and more state institutions - such as the two new government banks proposed for startups and market traders.

  2. An Atiku presidency raises the likelihood of certain economic reforms such as privatisation of inefficient state firms and a more market-led energy price structure. In both cases, though, neither a President Buhari nor a President Atiku will have the political will or resources (e.g. parliamentary seats) to push through far-reaching institutional reform.

Atiku and the PDP’s electoral chances have been boosted for the following reasons: The APC has seen increasing fragmentation, seeing defections to PDP featuring several top figures who helped Buhari win in 2015. Furthermore, we have seen the withdrawal of support for President Buhari, specifically from powerful ex-army chiefs such as Obasanjo. Since 1976, Nigeria’s political leader has emerged from this military class or someone they endorse.

Nana Ampofo