How Boko Haram changed Nigerian politics


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Emmanuel Akinwotu is a student at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is also a writer/editor for Project for Study of the 21st Century.

Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency has thrust Nigerian politics into a foreign place. Politicians in this country are familiar with criticism but not scrutiny. But the kidnap of over 276 girls in Chibok almost a year ago was a turning point. It wielded unavoidable international scrutiny on a political class adept at evading it. And now the elections on Saturday give the changing dynamics in Nigerian public affairs even greater significance.

The prevalent perception that President Jonathan has dithered in dealing with the extremists has deeply receded his chances of winning the presidential elections. He admitted in an interview last week to the BBC that the response to Boko Haram was hampered by a lack of weaponry. But the damage of this delay has run deep.

His ruling PDP party, who have won the last four elections with relative ease, face a credible threat from ex-general Muhammadu Buhari and his APC party. Buhari’s dictatorial past, a weakness in previous elections, is now a central facet of his appeal. He has rebranded dramatically, appearing in tuxedos, high-fiving children and attending musicals. His circular rimmed glasses, a throwback from his younger days, coincidentally rhymes with hip current trends. But over-emphasis on his modernity and democratic credentials as a future president plays against a key advantage.

The Nigerian electorate’s deep-seated nostalgia for military strong-men–and amnesia for the cruelties that they are ultimately famous for–is playing to his advantage. He is campaigning on change but his stock has risen largely because of a return to the past. His leadership infamous for its ruthlessness is seen by many as the antidote to the time-long issues of corruption, power shortage, job creation, and now Boko Haram.

Nigeria’s political class is now more balanced than ever before. Boko Haram has given the negligible prospects of Nigerian opposition parties a boost. The popularity of the government is still formidable, especially in the South-South and South-Eastern regions, but their support has fragmented. After the schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok in April 2014, the Presidency took 18 days to issue a response.

The hashtag campaign, the most popular in 2014 on Twitter, drew international focus on the tragedy of the abductions but also on the silence from the President. Even after he spoke officially to Nigerians, the messaging from the government was incoherent and dismissive. Their appearances amidst the immense media scrutiny were telling. The finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, under the frustration, angrily told a BBC journalist she didn’t want to talk about the girls.

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign has faced constant strain by the government and military. The government has tried to mar them as ‘evil agents’ and forcefully clamp down on their sittings and protests. Public engagement has illuminated the government’s old handedness in dealing with public concerns.

Usually in Nigerian politics, evasion of difficult issues is easy to pull off. Politicians scarcely regard or effectively communicate with electorates until they need them. However Boko Haram’s extremism has significantly challenged this dynamic.

The frequency of the terror in Northern and Northeastern Nigeria has made the necessity of the government to communicate with the public more pressing. It has been harder for the government to duck the bewilderment demands of Nigerians wanting to know why the group have been allowed to advance for so long. And now the consequences of failing to adequately engage with these concerns have waned their hopes of retaining power.

The Nigerian Army, in coalition with neighbouring military forces, have re-captured several cities. Boko Haram, for now, are a force in retreat, but their shadow looms large and politics has changed because of it. Nigeria’s increasingly young and sceptical demographic do not have the political class it is looking for. But what it does have is one more responsive to it. There is real choice for the first time since the end of military rule, and politics, whatever the result on Saturday, is better for it. But the human cost has been far too high.

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