The Nigerian army said on Friday that it re-taken the town of Gwoza where the Islamist militant group Boko Haram had maintained its headquarters.
“These successful operations have culminated in the dislodgment of terrorists from towns and communities in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno states,” military spokesman Chris Olukolade told the BBC. He said that Boko Haram fighters were seen fleeing to areas near the border with Camerooon.
The perception of military success might give President Goodluck Jonathan a better chance of beating his rival Buhari who has criticized Jonathan’s failure to take action against Boko Haram in the last six years.
When Nigeria’s presidential elections were postponed by six weeks in February for security reasons, many saw it as a thinly veiled attempt by Jonathan to gain time in a race that was turning in his rival’s favor. Had elections been held on schedule, Buhari might have had a very good chance of knocking the incumbent out of power in a first for Nigeria’s electoral history; the two candidates were equal at the polls.
Despite Jonathan’s best efforts to downplay an Islamist insurgency that had plagued the country’s northeast with massacres, mass kidnappings and a spate of terror attacks that has seen more than 11,000 killed during his time in power, his detractors successfully used the issue to raise wider questions about his abilities as leader of a country that is Africa’s economic fulcrum. So when Jonathan pledged to launch a military operation that would wipe Boko Haram from the map, it was widely interpreted as an effort to buff up his defense credentials in the face of a former military dictator who had made security the cornerstone of his campaign. Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party was “aware that after an underwhelming electoral campaign, it needed to recover ground,” says Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a U.K.-based political risk consultancy. “The military offensive was considered necessary to restrict Boko Haram’s ability to destabilize the country in what was set to be a turbulent election. But it was also seen as a way to boost the PDP’s propaganda campaign, showing that it can manage national security.”
It was a risky tactic; failure, after all, would have made for a potent weapons in the hands of his opponents. But now that the Nigerian army, with the help of foreign mercenaries and a coalition of military forces from Chad, Cameroon and Niger, has managed to push Boko Haram out of all but three of the 20 districts the radical Islamists once held, many are starting to wonder if success on the battlefield will lead to Jonathan’s victory at the ballot box.
That question will be put to the test when Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday March 28. In the closest presidential race since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerians will be voting on several different issues. Chief among them will be the bread and butter basics that any voter around the world can relate to: jobs and the economy, or, in Nigerian parlance, eba and soup, the national dish of pounded cassava with stewed meat. Jonathan’s record is spotty on both: while Nigeria edged out South Africa last year as the continent’s biggest economy, the country’s vast oil wealth has not trickled down to the general populace. And the global decline in oil prices has hampered investment in a country where at least 70% of government revenue comes from petroleum exports. In addition to security, Buhari has campaigned hard on the issue of corruption, another Jonathan weakness.
So, when it comes to issues, Jonathan may have just succeeded in supplanting Buhari’s security credentials. On Wednesday March 25 Jonathan told the BBC that Boko Haram was “getting weaker and weaker every day…I’m very hopeful that it will not take us more than a month to recover old territories that hitherto have been in their hands.” It later emerged that Nigeria’s anemic army required the assistance of some 100 South African, Ukrainian and British mercenaries, (The Nigerian government acknowledged they are receiving “technical and logistical support” from “foreign contractors”) but what matters in the end is that Nigeria, with the help of its neighbors, now appears to have the upper hand over Boko Haram.
The military offensive has reset the balance of power in the northeast and dented Boko Haram’s confidence while boosting military morale in the lead-up to the elections. That will help government standing in the elections, but it will not be the main factor determining how people vote, says Barclay. While some voters may not want to go against the government just as it is gaining ground, others remain skeptical. After all, Jonathan had six years to do something about Boko Haram, only to act decisively when his reelection prospects were under threat.
In some ways, the fact that Jonathan has not been 100% successful against Boko Haram may also work in his favor. The insurgent group is still active in some areas, and it has promised to disrupt the elections. People in the north, a Buhari stronghold, may be scared to vote; depriving Jonathan’s rival a key vote block.
But the bigger issue is that Nigerians, particularly in the rural areas, still vote along ethnic, regional and religious lines, and in that context, Buhari and Jonathan are evenly matched. Buhari is also avidly courting the relatively small number of swing voters that may be persuaded to vote for Jonathan because of his successes against Boko Haram. Jonathan’s military defeats of Boko Haram “may make a difference to the intelligentsia, but to the grass roots voters it doesn’t make a difference,” says Adunola Abiola, a Nigerian political analyst who founded the UK-based Think Security Africa policy group. “There are many who don’t understand or care about the insurgency, and by and large they are the ones who turn out to vote.”
In the early days of the election, a Jonathan campaign strategist dismissed the insurgency as a significant campaign issue, noting that the majority of Nigerians were more concerned about “eba and soup,” and that only those directly impacted by terror attacks would vote on security issues. Now that Jonathan has proved his security bona fides, his strategists may be wishing that Nigerians cared a little bit more about defeating Boko Haram, and less about the economy.