Nigeria's Election: Mediocrity With A Chance of Mayhem

Four years ago, Nigeria made history. The 2015 presidential election marked the first time that a Nigerian president lost an election, accepted defeat, and passed power to the opposition. Given that Nigeria is the most populous country and largest economy in Africa, that was good news for the entire region.


Well, tomorrow voters will return to the polls to decide whether to grant a second term to current President Muhammadu Buhari, or to demand he hand over power to his opponent, the business tycoon Atiku Abubakar. The choice is decidedly underwhelming.

Mr. Buhari's record over the past four years has been mixed. The oil-dependent economy is only barely emerging from a deep recession, and the unemployment rate has doubled to more than 23 percent since he took office. Some 84 percent of Nigerians think the government is corrupt. The security situation remains dicey: although Mr. Buhari had early success against the Islamic militants of Boko Haram, the group has been on a fresh tear lately. Meanwhile, violence between farming and herding communities – often with a Christian vs Muslim overlay – has surged in recent years.

What's more, persistent rumors about Buhari's poor health have reinforced the sense that the country is run by a leader without sufficient vision or energy. It's never good when your president has to deny publicly that he has died and been replaced with a body double or clone.

But the alternative to Mr. Buhari inspires little enthusiasm. Mr. Abubakar is a former customs boss who has built a vast corporate conglomerate and used his fortune to curry political support. He says he wants to use privatizations as a way to spark economic growth – a critical challenge given that roughly half of Nigeria's 190 million people live in extreme poverty – but critics worry that he just wants to enrich his cronies by handing them lucrative state assets.

The vote is expected to be very close. On balance, Mr. Buhari probably has an edge – he enjoys the natural advantages of being an incumbent, and there has been some turbulence within Mr. Abubakar's campaign and party machine down the homestretch. But this election is still very much up for grabs.

The wildcard scenario: Mr. Abubakar has warned that the military might interfere with voting to help Buhari win, and there are lingering concerns about the potential for vote rigging. If the election result is inconclusive, or at least close enough that one side refuses to accept defeat, there is some risk of violence.

The bottom line: Just four years after a peaceful and orderly transfer of power that was a model for the region, Nigeria is in a tough spot: a reasonably smooth election would grant power to one of two deeply uninspiring leaders, while a contested ballot could deal a deep blow to democracy in Africa's largest country.

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What we are watching

A retiring strongman in Kazakhstan – Since 1989, one man has ruled the massive, oil-rich Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. That is, until yesterday, when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president and put a close ally in charge until new elections are called. The 78-year old Kazakh leader was rumored to have been planning a transition for more than two years, putting allies in key posts, weakening the power of the presidency, and bolstering the clout of the country's Security Council, which he will still head. But the exact timing came as a surprise. We're watching this story – not just because it's a rare example of a strongman leaving power of his own will, but because we suspect Vladimir Putin is watching, too. The hardy 66-year-old Russian leader needs to figure out what he'll do when his current term expires in 2024. The constitution says Putin can't run again. Is Nazarbayev charting a path that Putin can follow?

A suspicious death in Italy – Italian authorities are investigating the suspicious demise of Imane Fadil, a 34-year-old Moroccan model who died in Milan earlier this month – apparently with high levels of toxic metals in her blood that could indicate poisoning. Fadil was a frequent guest at ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's infamous bunga-bunga sex parties, and was a key witness in his 2013 trial on underage sex allegations. Adding to the intrigue, Fadil was due to testify at another upcoming court case. Apart from all of this, her death could have an immediate impact on Italian politics: Italy's right-wing Lega party is now less likely to call a snap election this summer, because the Fadil case taints Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the group that Lega would ideally like to team up with in order to gain a majority in parliament.

What we are ignoring

The Scent of Fascism – In a new commercial out of Israel, a beautiful woman glides through arty black and white scenes like a model, purring about putting new limits on the judiciary, and spritzing herself with a perfume called "fascism." Hot stuff, right? But this isn't just a sultry model hawking a designer fragrance – it's the country's right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has incensed the left with her bid to curtail the power of courts, which she says are too liberal. At the end of the spoof ad, which is meant to promote her New Right party ahead of upcoming elections, Skaked takes whiff of the perfume and tells viewers: "Smells like democracy to me." We are ignoring this bid to put her party's name back in the headlines because the fascism joke just isn't funny.

Devin Nunes' Mom – Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, has filed a lawsuit seeking $250 million in damages against a Twitter personality who goes by the handle @DevinNunesMom, other users of the popular messaging platform, and Twitter itself. According to a copy of the complaint uploaded by Fox News, Nunes, the ardent Trump supporter who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, says @DevinNunesMom engaged in slander by calling him "presidential fluffer and swamp rat," and claiming he was "voted Most Likely To Commit Treason in high school," among other digital insults. The suit also accused Twitter of suppressing conservative viewpoints – an argument that other Republicans have used to put political pressure on the company. We'll be watching how that argument plays out, but we are ignoring @DevinNunesMom. Judging by the massive jump in followers that @DevinNunesMom has received since the case was filed, by the time this is all over, we're pretty sure Congressman Nunes will wish he had done so, too.