Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition & Terror

The People’s Democratic Party suffered a major defeat in Nigeria’s 2015 elections. Not only did it lose the presidency for the first time since the 1999 transition to democracy, it lost the House, the Senate, and most of the governorships. My most recent book, Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, offers a fresh empirical explanation for why the PDP lost, a new analysis of elites’ role in the 1999 transition, and a challenge to conventional thinking about Boko Haram’s impact on politics. You can order a copy of the book from Cambridge University Press here.

My core findings speak to research on democratic consolidation, African electoral politics, and the political economy of terrorism. My research draws on nearly fifty interviews in ten different states, a content analysis of 2,400 news articles covering the presidential campaign, and a statistical analysis of an unpublished nationwide survey.

“LeVan has written the most analytically rigorous and intellectually sophisticated book on Nigerian political studies I have read in recent years. This is a truly impressive and excellent scholarly endeavor.”  —Olufemi Vaughan, Amherst College

First, after noting the role of popular agitation for democracy in the 1990s, I detail the terms of elite agreements that facilitated the 1999 transition. Most research has centered on the PDP’s commitment to alternate power between north and south. But its internal “pact” also incorporated understandings between party elites and the military. For example, the PDP engaged in “coup proofing” by increasing security spending and promoting nearly 900 military officers on the eve of President Obasanjo’s second term. I then ask, “When do pacts end?” The vast literature on pacting (which I revisit in my 2017 book with Eisenstadt and Maboudi, Constituents before Assembly) largely neglects this important question. I argue that an emergent issued-based politics helped erode the pact — but its lingering legacies today undermine democratic development.

Next, an empirical analysis across three tiers (elite, state, and individual levels) demonstrates how the newly formed All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated Africa’s largest political party, the PDP.

  • In Chapter 3, I conduct a content analysis of news articles quoting the top campaign officials from the PDP and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). This elite-level analysis demonstrates that the two major parties campaigned on different issues. Specifically, the APC focused on the economy and corruption, despite several national surveys identifying insecurity as voters’ top concern. Interestingly, the APC also campaigned effectively on “electoral integrity,” while the PDP neglected to highlight accomplishments related to gender.
  • Chapter 4 focuses on electoral outcomes across states. I statistically demonstrate that voting patterns strongly correspond with economic policy evaluations, objective measures of state economic performance, and above all – faith in Buhari’s promises to improve the economy. Surprisingly, levels of violence do not reliably predicts electoral outcomes. The PDP played to its base, which overwhelming believed that terrorism would increase if Buhari got elected. Counter-terrorism was less important in states that voted for the APC. This suggests that African political parties can and do run on strategies calibrated by issue appeals.
  • Chapter 5 then conducts a statistical analysis using individual-level data from an unpublished survey (N=4,000). Tests of an “electoral integrity” hypothesis finds that voters with positive perceptions of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were more likely to vote for the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan. Tests of an “ethnic affinity” hypothesis find that individuals identifying themselves as either Hausa or Fulani were more likely to vote for Buhari (a Muslim with Fulani heritage). Finally, tests of a “religious referendum” hypothesis find that Muslim voters were far more likely to vote for Buhari. These findings, based on bivariate tests and with probit models, are consistent with the research documenting that even where Africans vote based on issues or policy evaluations, ethnicity still has an appeal. The correlation between religion and voting, however, is especially worrisome as Nigeria heads into its 2019 elections. 

Boko Haram’s victims: Meeting IDPs in Gombe State (with Matthew Page)

The erosion of the elite bargain that facilitated the 1999 transition facilitated the defeat of the PDP, but its lingering footprints impede democracy today. In Chapter 6, I critique the classic concept of “democratic consolidation.”  Then, drawing on new ideas from research on the Arab Spring, I introduce “stress points” as a tool for discussing whether democratic institutions can survive extra-institutional challenges. I analyze Boko Haram in the northeast, threats of Igbo secession in the southeast, and farmer-pastoralist tensions. I identify how legacies from the 1999 transition exacerbate these stress points today. I further argue that electoral accountability will be essential but insufficient for resolving the representational, distributional, and cultural components of these challenges. I draw on interviews with pastoralists and secessionist groups such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). The links between state impunity and the salience of sectarian identities emerge as common threads across these cases, underscoring the critical role of rule of law in ending terrorism, facilitating fair political competition, and improving the quality of democracy for future generations.