Briefing Note: Nigerian Elections and Boko Haram

At a Glance

Briefing Note: Nigerian Elections and Boko Haram

26 Mar 2015

Nigeria's national elections are on 28 March 2015; a process which has been influenced by a number of factors, including the impact of Boko Haram.

The first round of Nigeria's 2015 national elections is scheduled to take place on 28 March. This follows the postponement from the original election date of 14 February. In his announcement of the elections' postponement, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Professor Attahiru Jega, stated that the delay was based on counsel from the military, which was about to launch an offensive in the northeast of the country against Boko Haram, and so would not have had the capacity to support the police in securing the elections.

The national elections in 2011 were marred by divisive ethnic and religious rhetoric, and post-election violence. However, a positive aspect of the lead-up to these elections has been the decreased use of religion in candidates' campaigns and the reporting around them. Instead, the rhetoric has focused more on arguments of change versus continuity, and the personality of the candidates and their followers. However, looming over the process has been Boko Haram's salafi-jihadi insurgency in the northeast of the country.

The anti-Boko Haram operation is dominated by Chad.

There is widespread acknowledgement, domestically and internationally, that Boko Haram cannot be defeated in these six weeks despite the upsurge in military activity and recent advances. When Boko Haram was faced with overwhelming force in 2009, the group went underground, reorganised and re-emerged. It is possible they will do so again if the current operation is deemed successful. The group may also retain the capacity to continue a guerrilla campaign against 'soft targets.' Boko Haram's recent alliance with ISIS lends a further element of uncertainty to their trajectory.

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) is tasked with eliminating Boko Haram and over the past two months has had numerous successes against the group. The MNJTF is currently operating under an African Union mandate with a target capacity of 8,700 soldiers. It consists of soldiers from across the Lake Chad Basin region (Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger) as well as Benin. The operation seems to be dominated by Chad with significant support from Niger, despite Nigerian government denials of Chadian leadership.

Chad's military involvement against Boko Haram increased to counter threats from the group to its economic interests in the region (including an oil pipeline through Cameroon, and access to regional markets). However, the Chadian government has made it clear that it views Boko Haram as a Nigerian problem and its involvement is to eliminate the threat the group poses to its national interests. However, there remain fears that Boko Haram may retake territory once Chadian forces moves on.

It is possible Boko Haram's last town is Gwoza.

The combined strength of the regional militaries brought successes against the insurgents in February and March, pushing them out of towns captured by Boko Haram throughout the latter part of 2014, including Baga, Bama, Matra, Mafa, Damasak and Gamboru, as well as surrounding villages. It is possible that the last major town under Boko Haram control is Gwoza, which the group designated as its capital in August 2014. However it is unclear how much coordination occurs between the different MNJTF forces, or if each national military conducts operations separately.

The Nigerian and Chadian militaries in particular have claimed competing victories within Nigerian territory. Nigerian military spokesmen have linked the recent increase in activity and victories in the fight against Boko Haram to the arrival of arms shipments. It remains as likely, however, that the efficiency of regional and international forces accounts for many of the recent advances.

Reports have also emerged that foreign technical advisors and mercenary troops from Ukraine, Georgia and South Africa are playing an active – even dominant – role in the military successes. The use of foreign troops to combat Boko Haram within Nigeria is an indication of the weaknesses of the Nigerian military, once the strongest in West Africa and a point of national pride. For more information on the involvement of foreign advisors and mercenaries, see the recent Nigeria Security Network briefing.

Despite the advances made in recent weeks against Boko Haram, much of the northeast remains lawless, which will make voting in the region problematic. Government officials continue to insist that voters must cast their ballots in their hometowns, forcing people in the northeast who have fled Boko Haram attacks, especially those who are not in registered IDP camps, to return to their hometowns and villages or face being disenfranchised. The question of whether voting centres can be set up and secured across the northeast — which is majority Muslim and traditionally a stronghold of the opposition — also remains. Furthermore, the government announced on 25 March that all land and sea borders would be closed until after the elections, which is likely to have the consequence of disenfranchising Nigerian refugees who crossed into Niger, Chad and Cameroon to escape Boko Haram violence. 

For additional analysis on Nigeria's elections and the impact that different groups, including the youth, religious leaders and Boko Haram, will have on the elections process and Nigeria's security situation, see below for a selection of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics' publications.

  • The 'What is Boko Haram?' backgrounder explores three foundational strengths of the group, its ideological justifications, ethnic support base and regional training networks. The group, depending on these strengths, is likely to remain a severe security threat to Nigeria and the region for the foreseeable future.
  • The 13 March 2015 Centre on Religion & Geopolitics briefing note ' Boko Haram Joins ISIS' explores the process, meaning, and implications of Boko Haram's 7 March announcement of their affiliation to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in Iraq and Syria.
  • Jacob Zenn's 9 February 2015 commentary ' Boko Haram: "We're Not Only in Nigeria Anymore"' argues that the group's communications strategy appears to be shifting as it attempts to tie itself to the international jihadi narrative. The recent increase in video appearances by Abubakar Shekau and the shift toward international issues in the videos as well as Shekau's emulation of ISIS' style indicates a possible attempt to tie Boko Haram into the international jihadi landscape.
  • Ryan Cummings' 21 January 2015 commentary ' Blood and the Ballot Box: Boko Haram and Nigerian Elections' assesses the threat of Boko Haram to the election and to Nigerian democracy. He discusses the likely 'hot spots' of insecurity, Boko Haram's historic relationship with politics and ideological rejection of democratic institutions.
  • The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics 20 January 2015 briefing note ' Boko Haram in Cameroon' investigates the long legacy of Boko Haram attacks in the country. It explains the destructive impact the group has had on security, education, the economy and social cohesion, especially in the Far North Region.
  • The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics 4 December 2014 briefing note ' Terror and Legitimacy in Nigeria' lays out the historic use of spectacular violence by Boko Haram, as well as its specific targeting of religious and political leaders seen to oppose them.
  • Ian Linden's 2 October 2014 commentary ' Nigeria: Religious Leaders and Elections' looks back at the elections in 2011, and the violence that occurred after the polls closed, and he looks forward at the role religious leaders can play in mitigating violence and promoting national unity.
  • Emily Mellgard's 17 November 2014 commentary ' Religion, Politics, and the Youth Factor in Nigeria's Elections' argues that the rhetoric and actions of candidates and religious leaders will influence whether the elections are peaceful. Boko Haram's growing control of territory in the northeast and capacity to disrupt elections will also have an impact on the legitimacy of the results.
  • Atta Barkindo's 29 September 2014 commentary ' Boko Haram: Ideology, Ethnicity, and Identity' examines the cultural and ethnic ties of the insurgency. He argues that the group's ideology is ultimately religiously focused, but draws on deep ethnic and cultural roots to recruit members and sustain its momentum.


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