This weekend’s presidential election in Nigeria is becoming a cliffhanger worthy of a Nollywood movie, even before the decision to delay the election just five hours before the polls were due to open.
In the early hours of Saturday, as most Nigerians slept, the country’s Independent National Electoral Commissions (INEC) decided to postpone the presidential elections by a week. They cited logistical reasons, including fires, bad weather, and difficulties distributing voting materials. However, in reality it appears to be incompetence on a gross scale.
Yet Nigerians will tell you that this is nothing new. In 2015, the elections were delayed by six weeks due to the security threat posed by Boko Haram. And in 2011, INEC declared at noon on voting day that the country was not ready and instead it would try again the following week.
The delay has increased suspense around the election, as the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is facing a stiff challenge from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. On Saturday, Nigeria’s eighty-four million eligible voters will have the opportunity to give their verdict on four years of rule by President Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC), and although it has not all been smooth sailing for President Buhari’s administration, it has made progress in some key areas.
When President Buhari won in 2015 he fought on three key promises: to improve security, strengthen the economy and to fight corruption. This election has become a battle to prove he’s made progress on these three issues.
It’s certainly true that President Buhari’s reputation as 'incorruptible' has been maintained throughout his four years in office: a reputation that does not befall many Nigerian political figures. His administration delivered the flagship Treasury Single Account Policy that has so far saved the country a small fortune. Corrupt officials have been arrested and retrieved funds have been allocated to the largest social investment programme in the history of Nigeria. The Second Niger Bridge is being built, and 2000km of roads and rail have either been completed or are ongoing.
His third promise as an ex-military man was to tackle security and in particular the continued Boko Haram insurgency in the north which has claimed many lives and displaced almost two million Nigerians. Here the picture is mixed. In spite of early successes which saw the Nigerian army re-capture a lot of Boko Haram-controlled territory, the Islamic militant force is still proving capable of attacking and kidnapping local civilians.
The main opposition candidate is Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), attacking President Buhari’s record on all three issues. Abubakar honed his reputation as a businessman throughout Nigeria thanks, in part, to his involvement in the privatisation of several areas of Nigerian industry. He is pledging to 'Get Nigeria working again'. But he is weighed down by the failures of previous PDP administrations, and his campaign has been marred by accusations of corruption, which he has repeatedly been forced to deny.
Abubakar’s name was linked to two criminal cases in the US -- the prosecution of German engineering giant Siemens AG for paying bribes to officials in Africa, and the prosecution of former US Representative William Jefferson. In this case, Abubakar was named in connection to $90,000 in cash found in Jefferson’s freezer. In 2010, Abubakar was also the subject of a 2010 congressional investigation into $40 million of suspect funds wired into the US from offshore corporations. Abubakar has consistently denied any wrongdoing related to the cases.
Both candidates, however, share an electoral disadvantage in a country of mainly young people. They are in their seventies in a country where 81 million out of a total population of 191 million are aged under 14. The average age of a Nigerian is just 18, the average age of their two leading Presidential candidates is 74.
By 2045, Nigeria will have a bigger population than the US in an African market which will double in size by 2050. Which is why these elections are absolutely crucial to the UK, particularly as it faces life outside the EU and seeks new global markets. For too long the UK’s knowledge of Nigeria has been limited to 911 scams and corruption and its only exposure to news from Nigeria has been the kidnapping of schoolgirls and Boko Haram atrocities.
There is huge potential in the vibrant youth of this country, its increasingly diversified economies and the rapid technological advancements. This is a fact that powers such as China and Japan woke up to long ago. It is now vital that we in ‘the West’ wake up to this fact, too.
Peter Burdin is the former Africa Bureau Chief of the BBC.