Hope and Uncertainty in Ethiopia

Guest post by Solomon Gofie, Department of Political Science and International Relations, Addis Ababa University

The political transformation in Ethiopia since early 2018 captured many by surprise. The recent changes followed a period of sustained protests against mounting state repression that lasted for at least three years (2015-2018). Thousands of political prisoners have been released, individuals, groups and political organizations in exile have been pardoned and returned to the country, and a modicum of freedom of expression and the press appears to be re-emerging. A major regional hostility in the Horn of Africa that lasted for about 20 years involving the Eritrean regime and its Ethiopian counterpart has been resolved unexpectedly, mainly due to bold initiative taken by the new Ethiopian Prime Minster, Abiy Ahmed.

The new EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) group led by the Abiy Ahmed since April 2018 has been actively working to reform the state in Ethiopia. However, attempts to reform have been accompanied by promises as well as profound concerns among the population. For example, the dramatic ease in the archetype political control of the country spearheaded by the former Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated EPRDF before 2018, has since been eroded. But as it has been replaced by a group of EPRDF reformers making dramatic changes in rhetoric and making several reconciliatory moves, new trajectories of tensions have been emerging in different parts of the country. “Ethnic conflicts” reported from remote parts of Ethiopia over the decades appear to have now reached the central plains.

One of the key challenges during this era of reform has since been a wave of internal displacement. This includes about a million people from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia in the East starting late 2017, perhaps half a million from the Guji & Gedeo regions in the South, a quarter of a million from the Benishangul-Gumuz and Wollega in the west, and thousands more from several parts of the country including in the north. In line with these, in August 2018, months after the coming into power of Abiy Ahmed, following tensions between groups supporting two armed political organizations which returned after a peace deal in Asmara, Eritrea, clashed in and around Addis Ababa, the effect of which led to deaths, and displacement of thousands of people most of whom were reported to have returned to their homes.

In December 2018, Abiy appeared in military uniform to announce the formation of a “Republican Guard” meant to protect state officials and their families. This is a sign that Ethiopian politics remains full of both hope and uncertainty.

Solomon Gofie is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He teaches courses in contemporary global politics & transnationalsim, international relations and international human rights and politics in Africa. His research interests include state-society relations and the politics of human rights, citizenship and political communities in Africa, migration and transnational involvement in Africa, conflict dynamics and conflict resolution.

Issues and Identity in Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

Nigeria’s presidential election is now in full swing, with President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) running for re-election. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) recently chose former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, as its candidate. Recent polling suggests that Africa’s most populous democracy is headed for a close contest, and a detailed analysis of the 2015 campaign in my new book offers some important lessons for parties in 2019.

Data from NOI Polls make clear that Buhari enjoyed a rather brief honeymoon after his election. Every month since he took the oath in 2015, Nigerians were asked whether they approved or disapproved of his performance; the graph below breaks it down into three-month averages. In the most recent September poll, Nigerians are evenly split, with 43% approving and 42% disapproving of Buhari. Importantly, 15% are undecided. Can the PDP capture that 15% and convert voters now loyal to Buhari? If it did, this would be Nigeria’s second “electoral turnover,” which comparative research associates with democratic consolidation.

A critical fact about the upcoming election is that both candidates are northern Muslims. This means that religious cleavages will play a smaller role – though they won’t disappear.  In my new book, Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, I find that religion predicted voter preferences even more reliably than ethnicity in 2015. Specifically, in Chapter 5, I show that a survey respondent’s self-identification as a Muslim corresponded with a nearly 56 percent decline in support for Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent, Christian president from the PDP. The results are statistically significant at the 99% confidence interval, and the model controls for a respondent’s income, education, gender, age, and whether they dis/approve of the governor in his or her state. (Ethnicity was excluded from that particular model due to collinearity with religion.)

In 2019, the two candidates will have to rely on issues, ideas and other tools for motivating and mobilizing voters. Nigeria is thus embarking on an important experiment in its political campaigns: without an electoral strategy drawing upon religion or large regional cleavages (north and south), how will the PDP distinguish itself from the APC? And what are Buhari’s best chances for holding on to power?

As in 2015, the incumbent party is vulnerable on the economy. The initial dip in Buhari’s approval ratings (above) corresponded with a deep recession; Nigeria’s economy contracted by 1.6 percent in 2016. Though oil prices have recovered, and the World Bank’s forecast for 2018 is about 2.1 percent GDP growth, this is hardly a strong basis for a re-election campaign, and inflation remains high – around 11 percent.

Can the PDP win with “economic voters”?

Yet the opportunity for the PDP to run on the economy, as the APC did in 2015 (according to my analysis of campaign rhetoric), is not a simple strategy for two reasons. First, my statistical analysis of voting outcomes across states in 2015 found that citizens’ evaluation of past economic performance, their self-reported level of wealth, and their expectations for which party would improve the economy, all strongly correlated with voting intentions in 2015. In short, poorer, more economically pessimistic voters rallied to the opposition candidate, Buhari. But it is not clear that Nigerians are turning on Buhari’s approach to the economy: an Afrobarometer survey conducted April-May 2017 reported that while 60% said the country’s economy condition was “very bad” or “fairly bad,” a similar number (57%) described their own subjective position as “fairly good” or “very good.” Moreover, 82% believed the economy would get “better” or “much better” over the next 12 months. Though this last question on economic hope is not framed with two alternative candidates like the survey data I used, the incongruity between these indicators (subjective condition vs. future economic performance) is notable here since they performed similarly in my empirical analysis of voting in 2015.

Posters from the APC convention in 2018.

Second, Buhari apparently remains credible on anti-corruption. That same Afrobarometer poll reported that 59 percent of Nigerians believe Buhari’s government is doing “fairly well” or “very well” fighting corruption. BudgIT, the transparency and corruption civil society watchdog, noted this June: “For the second time within a month, Justice Adebukola Banjoko sentenced another ex-Governor, Joshua Dariye, to imprisonment. He is to serve 14 years in jail. Jolly Nyame of Taraba State received an equal sentence.” Though there was a curious delay in delivering on the sentence, they are both now in reportedly prison — a rare victory for rule of law in Nigeria.

The problem for Buhari is that in contrast to 2015, the economy overall, rather than corruption specifically, appears to be a much higher priority for citizens. For example, in a January 2015 US Government-sponsored survey, respondents ranked corruption second – after insecurity – in an open-ended question asking about the country’s top priorities (about 20% compared to 39% for insecurity). However, in the 2017 Afrobarometer survey, insecurity was not even a blip in response to an open ended question about the biggest challenges facing Nigeria. Instead, 53% mentioned unemployment and 35% management of the economy; corruption came in fifth, (with 23% mentioning it somewhere among their three top concerns).

In 2016 I interviewed Atiku Abubakar for my new book from Cambridge University Press,, “Contemporary Nigerian Politics.” At the time he was a member of the APC. Changing parties three times since 1999 could be a factor that challenges his credibility in the 2019 presidential election.

This means that Buhari will likely retain an advantage over the PDP when it comes to campaigning on corruption. But corruption so far seems less important than strongly negative assessments of the economy overall. And on this, Atiku’s status as a civilian entrepreneur just might provide the right contrast with the ex-general.

Finally, it is worth nothing that Atiku’s pick of a former governor from the southeast, Peter Obi, was a clever move. Despite the opinion, popular among ethnic Igbos, that Buhari has a “northern agenda” and he is secretly in cahoots with Fulani pastoralists, PDP politicians I interviewed in Imo and Aba planned to support a northern candidate in order to beat Buhari. (Meaning, not all northerners carry the “northern” agenda.) This however comes with an understanding that the Igbos will “have a turn” in 2023. As we saw in 2015, when Goodluck Jonathan decided to run for re-election after supposedly agreeing in 2011 not to do so, this is a tough bargain to enforce.

To learn more about those bargains, check out Chapter 2 of my new book, which details the “pacts” that facilitated the 1998-99 transition. For example, PDP elites agreed upon the idea that the presidency should alternate between north and south. I conclude that the erosion of those deals weakened the PDP heading into 2015. Once again, the PDP will have to weigh the tradeoffs between in the principle of fairness advanced by rotating the presidency on the one hand, and Nigerians’ demands for open competition on the other.


I am pleased to share this important message from American civil society groups regarding Buhari’s meeting with Trump.

On the occasion of the visit of President Buhari:

The Nigeria Working Group is made up of diverse organizations who work in advocacy, human rights, direct humanitarian relief, peacebuilding, and various other technical sectors committed to supporting a fruitful and constructive relationship between the United States and Nigeria to promote development and peace. Nigeria is a strong ally for the United States with social, political, and economic influence across the continent. We are concerned with the current state of conflict in Nigeria and look forward for the opportunity for President Trump and President Buhari to strengthen their commitment to preventing and ending violence in Nigeria.

On the important occasion of President Buhari’s official visit to Washington, DC, members of the working group urge that he and President Trump discuss the following issues including:

  1. Safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons: To ensure safe return of displaced persons requires access by humanitarian actors, clear reporting on the security status of the area of return, and measures to support adequate food and medical provisions for the returning populations. Individuals who have returned or escaped abduction should be provided with necessary care and have access to family members during this process. Alongside and incorporated into humanitarian assistance, there needs to be specific attention paid to reconciliation and reintegration efforts. Limited attention to rebuilding community relationships risks reversing successes made in the fight against Boko Haram and creates conditions for the escalation of social conflict in this fragile context.
  2. Robust and effective response to the ongoing violence of Boko Haram: A multifaceted response that includes accountability and a commitment to the practice of good governance is critical for defeating the insurgency and rehabilitating communities in crisis. Deradicalization, reintegration, and rehabilitation of former Boko Haram combatants must be coordinated, strategic, and locally-led, with a clear vision for long-term success. These efforts should also go beyond focusing on individual fighters and also focus on community and economic stability and resilience.
  3. Addressing root drivers of inter-communal conflict in the Middle Belt: Violence between farming and herding communities in the Middle Belt continues to escalate, with over 170,000 people displaced from Benue state alone since December. Increasing attacks and high-level calls for Nigerians to ‘rise up and defend themselves’ threatens to intensify violence in other states and export instability to other regions of the country and to bordering countries. The Middle Belt is the food basket of Nigeria and continued violence not only threatens human lives, but the food production and security of the country. There needs to be support to local platforms that link up to state and national level responses to address conflict drivers and triggers and to manage conflicts in their community. At the same time, there needs to be a coordinated effort to lessen inflammatory rhetoric around attacks, build trust between communities and the government, and promote messages of peace.

This meeting comes at a critical time for Nigeria’s future and we welcome the opportunity to discuss many important issues for the future of the partnership between Nigeria and the United States. Many significant gains have been made in combatting Boko Haram and building community platforms for peace, but there must be continued engagement to sustain and expand this progress. As we look at promoting development, growth, and peace in West Africa, Nigeria and the United States must jointly promote a holistic strategy to prevent violence within its borders. As a working group and individual organizations, we stand ready to assist in promoting this strategy and welcome further engagement on these and other issues of great importance for both Nigeria and the United States.

Mike Jobbins

Senior Director, Partnerships and Engagement

Search for Common Ground


Nathan Hosler, PhD.

Convener, Nigeria Working Group

Director, Office of Peacebuilding and Policy

Church of the Brethren

Could Dapchi Girls Hurt APC’s Re-Election Chances?

Nigerians received good news this week with the release of approximately 101 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram on 19 February this year, taken from a government-run boarding school in Dapchi, Yobe State.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration seemed determined to avoid the predicament his predecessor faced in 2014, when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok just months ahead of a presidential elections. That incident triggered one of the largest social media storms in history, making #BringBackOurGirls one of the biggest hashtags ever on Twitter. Within two weeks #BringBackOurGirls had been tweeted over two million times. So when the “Dapchi girls” were taken, there was a sense of déjà vu as well as palpable political panic for Buhari’s party as it heads into presidential election, slated for early 2019.

This post draws upon research I conducted for my new book, Nigerian Party Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, forthcoming later in 2018 from Cambridge University Press. My content analysis of political rhetoric used by officials from the People’s Democratic Party and the (then) opposition All Progressives Congress shows that insecurity did not top the list of campaign themes in the 2015 presidential election. Consistent with some existing research on terrorism in democracies (see for example Marcus, Neuman and MacKuen 2000), voters had a heightened sense of general political awareness and engagement. Nigerians ultimately cast their lot with the party that offered a persuasive portfolio of issues that included the economy, corruption, and what I categorize as “electoral integrity.” In effect, #BringBackOurGirls mattered – not just for how citizens thought about insecurity but for how they evaluated several types of policy performance.

How President Jonathan’s Administration Mishandled Chibok

In the months that followed the Chibok kidnappings, a series of communications blunders by President Jonathan damaged his administration’s credibility. First, the military said they had rescued the Chibok girls in April 2014, infuriating the girls’ parents (See Ameh, John, Jude Owuamanam, and Kayode Idowu. 2014. “Military Lied about Schoolchildren Rescue – Principal, Parents.” Punch, April 18). The military also provided different numbers of those kidnapped, contributing to confusion and conspiracy theories about how the administration might benefit from the kidnapping.

A #BringBackOurGirls vigil at the White House in January 2017 for the Chibok girls. Kidnapped in 2014, approximately 100 of them remain prisoners of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. It was a very cold day (I’m on the right).

The second communications blunder unfolded a month later when the Chief of Defence Staff said that the government knew where the girls were. This was untrue, and briefly intensified public frustration and demands for a rescue operation or additional military action (See Jones, Barbara. 2014. “Hostage Schoolgirl Exclusive.” Daily Mail, May 31). General Chris Olukolade made a similar stumble later that year in September, when he declared that some of the girls were safe in a military barracks – but then retracted that statement (See “Army Backtracks on Schoolgirls’ Release.” 2014. BBC, September 23). As international attention hit its peak, President Jonathan was filmed dancing at a wedding celebrating, creating the impression of detachment or apathy.

Third, as the #BringBackOurGirls movement held peaceful vigils around Abuja, the police commissioner for the Federal Capital Territory banned the gatherings. “I cannot fold my hands and watch this lawlessness,” he declared. The immediate embarrassment and scandal prompted a swift retraction by police leadership (Nnochiri, Ikechukwu, Emmanuel Elebeke, and Abdulwahab Abdulah. 2014. “Chibok Girls – We Didn’t Ban Rallies in Abuja – IG.” Vanguard, June 4).

Fourth, some military officials told newspapers that ten generals and other military officers had been convicted by court-martial for providing arms to Boko Haram. (What happened in these cases remains unclear to me.) A Ministry of Defence spokesperson immediately disputed those reports, according to the Associated Press.

A fifth public relations blunder unfolded in July, when President Jonathan refused to meet with some parents who wanted to be accompanied by #BringBackOurGirls leaders, who had paid the parents’ way from Chibok for the meeting.

Finally, the Jonathan administration repeatedly sent mixed messages about its willingness to negotiate with Boko Haram or whether it had agreed upon a ceasefire. On a few occasions, intermediaries reported that Boko Haram was willing to trade hostages for prisoners. According to a member of the Northern Elders Forum whom I interviewed for my book, Jonathan and the PDP “wanted to keep the turmoil going because it had political value for them.”

Is Dapchi Chibok Redux?

In the final year of President Jonathan’s tenure, the decline of security in the northeast and his administration’s mishandling of the Chibok girls weakened the PDP’s case for successful counter-terrorism. This “credibility gap” just before the 2015 elections increased voter skepticism about the incumbent party’s ability to run fair elections, and most importantly, according to the evidence I present in Nigerian Party Competition, to deliver on the economy.

There are a few similarities today with Buhari’s predicament. Shortly before the release of the Dapchi victims, for example, Bring Back Our Girls complained about “the troubling sparseness of information” from the federal government about the Yobe State girls.

Several Dapchi children remain unaccounted for, and the government’s communications strategy remains uncoordinated. Notably, the number of those released has fluctuated with the government first mentioning 76 girls, and quickly revising this upwards to 101.

Worse, the Nigerian military may have failed to act on information that Boko Haram was moving toward Dapchi, resembling comments from government sources who told me that Boko Haram ran amok in Chibok for several hours before the Army arrived. “The authorities appear to have learned nothing from the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok,” said Amnesty International’s investigators of the Dapchi incident.

Buhari has on several occasions claimed that Boko Haram was defeated, so the Dapchi kidnapping widened the credibility gap with the public. As in 2015, citizens might treat campaign claims about economic growth or other issues with the same skepticism they now view the Buhari administration’s progress against Boko Haram. And if the administration paid the group money in return for the girls’ release, it is only a matter of time until the extortionists strike again.

Will Nigeria’s Women Win in 2019?

In my new book, I explain how Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party lost to a new opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, in 2015. This is the first of several blog posts previewing findings in my forthcoming Nigerian Party Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror (Cambridge University Press) and linking the research to the upcoming 2019 presidential elections.

In Chapter 3, “Voting Against Violence? Insecurity and Economic Uncertainty in the Presidential Election,” I conduct a content analysis of the campaign rhetoric of Muhammadu Buhari (APC) and Goodluck Jonathan (PDP) as well as two top officials from each party. One unexpected result, which I highlighted at a very informative panel today organized by the International Republican Institute, is that out of five categories of issues discussed by the candidates, gender and social issues received the fewest mentions. Only 7.4% of the 929 coded references discussed gender, which I grouped with other “social issues” including health and education.

Panel on women in Nigeria’s 2019 elections. L-R: Jackson M’vuganyi, Ayisha Osori, me, and Sentell Barnes of IRI.

Even more importantly though, the parties clearly campaigned on different issues. The APC mentioned social issues twice as often as the PDP. Was this a mistake by the Jonathan campaign? While issues such as insecurity and the economy were perhaps a more difficult sell for President Jonathan (in light of an increase in Boko Haram’s violence in late 2014 and a decline in oil prices), his administration had made some important gains on gender. For example:

  • The UNDP report assessing progress towards the Millennium Development Goals for 2015 noted declines in infant mortality and increases in immunization rates. Maternal mortality declined and the access to skilled birth attendants (such as midwives) increased.
  • The gender disparity in education at the primary and secondary level virtually disappeared (at least in aggregate national terms), prompting the UNDP to conclude that Nigeria achieved the MDC target by enrolling one female for every male.
  • According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 2014 also reported a slight increase in women’s literacy and in secondary school attendance rate.
  • Access to higher education in the north increased with the construction of federal universities in nine states that did not have one. “For you to liberate any group of human beings, whether they are from the Southern creeks or from the North, it is education,” Jonathan said in 2013.
  • In terms of political empowerment, some academic studies similarly concluded that women made important strides under Jonathan, crediting affirmative action and inclusion of gender in Federal Character (Gberevbie and Oviasogie 2013).

Yet the PDP just did not make women’s issues a campaign priority. I suggest in my book that this was a mistake.

This data is based on a content analysis of 929 coded comments by the top three officials in each political campaign, based on a sample of 2,390 articles from This Day, Daily Trust, and Vanguard. PDP officials: Goodluck Jonathan; Doyin Okupe, the Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to President; and Adamu Mua’zu, former PDP National Working Committee Chairman.  APC officials: Muhammadu Buhari; Lai Mohammed, National Publicity Secretary; and Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, Director-General of the Presidential Campaign.

How might gender be relevant in the 2019 presidential election?

This question was the focus of a panel discussion today at IRI. Looking beyond the 2015 elections, I presented evidence that women have gone backwards under the Buhari administration. As promised during the campaign, Buhari abolished the Office of the First Lady in August 2015. “All that ostentation, ubiquitousness and arrogance we have come to expect from the office are over and done with,” said a statement from Aso Rock. Buhari also infamously scolded his wife for expressing her political views, saying “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”

The rhetoric has unfortunately correlated pretty well with other indicators of women’s status under the Buhari administration. According to the Global Gender Gap Reports for 2015 and 2017, there has been a slight decline in the percent of women enrolled in tertiary education, and a steep decline in the number of women ministers – from 24 to 12. It appears that women’s income has actually gone up under Buhari, but it has done so at the expense of men. A decline in the purchasing power parity of men, in this context, is a scary recipe for a backlash against women. These figures should not be taken as the consequence of any specific government policy. But such data do often point to a deeper social sentiment, much like racial and class animosity that played out in America’s 2016 election.

Buhari and the APC still have a chance to turn things around. They could start by recruiting more women to run as APC candidates, as Aisha Osori, author of Love Does not Win Elections is urging. The APC could also coordinate an effort to get states to pass implementing legislation for the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act 2015, which provides a protective legal framework for women and girls. With the possibility of a backlash against women, this seems especially important.

At the moment though, the picture looks bleak. Buhari is repeating some of the mistakes made by President Jonathan with the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls movement as his administration grapples with the schoolgirls recently kidnapped from Yobe State.  My next post will detail those public relations blunders.