The failure of one of Africa’s biggest armies to crush an Islamic insurgency, insecurity in other parts of Nigeria and a stuttering economy could scuttle President Muhammadu Buhari’s bid for a second term.
Buhari, 75 and beset by mysterious bouts of ill health that forced him to spend five months in London for treatment last year, said earlier this month he intended to run for re-election next February.
But his chances are likely to be impaired by the failure to fulfil many of the pledges that first won him the election in 2015.
Buhari’s most glaring failure has been the continuing Boko Haram Islamist rebellion in northeast Nigeria, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people since it began in 2009. Buhari’s promise as a tough, aesthetic former military ruler to end the insurgency was key in his winning the 2015 election.
Nigeria is by some measures Africa’s biggest economy and has by far the largest population. But what could be a prosperous continental powerhouse remains mired in endemic corruption and violent conflicts that have reduced the oil output on which the West African nation is dangerously over-dependent.
Nigeria suffered a recession in 2016 and is making only a slow recovery.
Despite oil wealth, most people live on less than $2 a day, public services are inadequate and the country has a dismal human rights record. Forty percent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed. Nigeria is 148th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
Army failure to defeat Boko Haram
The powerful Nigerian army and police have been unable to suppress Boko Haram, although in alliance with neighbouring countries they have pushed the militants out of an area the size of Belgium that they held in 2015.
The Islamic movement continues to wage a damaging asymmetrical war, often using children to carry out suicide bombings.
The most notorious example of government inability to effectively fight the insurgents was the abduction of 276 teenage schoolgirls from Borno state four years ago this month. Around 100 of them are still unaccounted for despite an international outcry that prompted a major government offensive against the insurgents.
Buhari has repeatedly claimed Boko Haram is defeated, but another 100 schoolgirls were abducted in February this year despite warnings to the military that an attack was imminent. Most of them were returned a month later.
However, UNICEF says more than 1,000 children have been abducted in the northeast since 2013, more than 1,400 schools destroyed and more than 2,000 teachers killed. Teenagers abducted and raped by Islamist fighters are frequently ostracised even if they manage to escape and return home, many with babies.
Violence is not confined to the northeast, although Boko Haram is Africa’s bloodiest terrorist emergency.
Apart from years of militant attacks in the oil-producing Niger delta, hundreds of people have died this year in fighting between nomadic herdsmen and Christian farmers in central Nigeria. This week, gunmen killed 16 people in an attack on a church in the region.
Critics have cited many reasons for the savagery and success of Boko Haram, including neglect of the desperately poor north-eastern region and brutality by the Nigerian military and local militias that contributed to radicalisation of the population.
At the peak of the rebellion in 2015, 11,500 people were killed, but more than 3,000 died last year even though Boko Haram had been driven out of a huge tract of territory.
The abandonment of towns, villages and farmland because of fear and fighting has devastated an already dirt-poor area. With elections for both president and parliament due within a year, there are fears that local politicians will try to buy support from local militias set up to fight Boko Haram, which has more than 25,000 fighters.
There is even concern that these militias could turn into a predatory force even if Boko Haram is finally defeated.
Assuming Buhari’s candidacy is confirmed by his All Progressives Congress party, his best chance of re-election, despite the many obstacles, may be disarray and disunity in the opposition People’s Democratic Party, which ruled Nigeria from 1999 until he won power in 2015.
But his lack of tangible success in several different areas and uncertainties about his health, which critics say have reduced the government to inertia, will be persistent question marks ahead of next year’s vote.