Just before dusk on a recent afternoon in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, a small crowd begins to gather under the trees of a local park. The people unfurl banners, set up a speaker system and arrange a few dozen plastic chairs in a semicircle. Some wear designer suits, others vivid African prints. One is draped in the full hijab of a conservative Muslim woman, but instead of the traditional black it is a vibrant red, silk-screened with white lettering that reads, Bring back our girls. The woman picks up a mike. “It’s been 280 days since Boko Haram abducted our daughters, and the government has done nothing. What do we want?” “We want our girls back and alive!” the crowd responds.
Part protest, part vigil, the Bring Back Our Girls rallies have taken place daily since April 30. That was the day that Aisha Yesufu, the woman in red, concluded that her government was not going to secure the freedom of the 276 Nigerian girls who were abducted from their school in the northern town of Chibok two weeks earlier by the jihadist group Boko Haram. Nominally apolitical, the rallies have taken on a partisan tinge over the past month as Nigeria prepares for a presidential election on Feb. 14. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, is facing a strong challenge from Muhammadu Buhari, a former military general who served nearly two years as President after taking power in a 1983 coup.
Jonathan, who didn’t publicly acknowledge that the girls from Chibok had gone missing until almost three weeks after their abduction, has largely avoided security issues in his campaign. That has infuriated the Bring Back Our Girls organizers. “This is not just about missing girls,” says Yesufu. “It is about knowing that as a Nigerian citizen you have the right to feel secure in any part of our country.” She shakes her head with incomprehension. “It is absurd that Jonathan still has a chance to get re-elected after failing to rescue our girls.”
The Nigerian government’s military campaign against the Islamist militants of Boko Haram began in 2009, but it was the abduction of the schoolgirls last year that thrust Nigeria into the spotlight and alerted the world to the growing threat of a force that now controls large swaths of Africa’s most populous country. As the continent’s top petroleum producer and the home to rapidly growing telecommunications and entertainment industries, a secure, efficient Nigeria could be a beacon of stability in tumultuous West Africa. But should the country crumble under economic mismanagement and an insurgency that already has free rein over territory roughly the size of Costa Rica in northeastern Nigeria, it risks pulling much of the unstable region down with it.
Whoever wins this month’s election won’t have an easy job. The next President will be tasked with addressing the corruption, military weakness and economic inequities that have enabled Boko Haram to thrive. He will also have to cope with the plunging price of crude, which has seen the oil-dependent government’s revenue tumble. Recent opinion polls conducted by research group Afrobarometer show that the election is too close to call.
Many Nigerians and outside observers fear that a long-standing rivalry between Buhari’s largely Muslim base in the north and Jonathan’s southern Christian supporters could erupt into bloodshed over election results that would benefit no one but Boko Haram. “You can be sure Boko Haram are watching what is happening with the elections,” says Jacob Zenn, an Africa analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute. “They are likely to take advantage of any instability to carry out attacks.” There is a precedent. When Jonathan beat Buhari in the 2011 elections, three days of rioting resulted in the deaths of more than 800 people. “If the election goes smoothly and there is a peaceful transfer of power, the government will be able to prioritize the fight against Boko Haram,” says Zenn. “However, if there is a period of postelection tension and infighting, it could make counterinsurgency more difficult.”
The latter scenario is the more likely of the two. Both Buhari and Jonathan have signed an agreement not to incite violence, but their supporters could take matters into their own hands, especially if they suspect fraud. The head of Buhari’s party All Progressives Congress warned in November that if Jonathan won through vote rigging, the opposition would establish a parallel government. “The people of Nigeria, they know if elections have been free and fair,” says party spokesman Lai Mohammed. Jonathan supporters in the oil-rich delta areas of southern Nigeria have threatened to respond with violence if their candidate doesn’t win. Just when Nigerians need to unite against a common enemy–Boko Haram–they seem perilously divided.
Behind the rivalry between the two candidates is Nigeria’s informal tradition of alternating power between the north and the south. The two regions have competed for resources and power ever since British colonialists cobbled together a country out of separate territories in 1914. Jonathan, a southerner, was Vice President when northerner Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died in office in 2010, after serving half a term. Many northerners resent the fact that Jonathan ran again in 2011, winning another term and securing for the south the political muscle that comes with the office. “The consensus of alternating power that held the country together has fractured,” says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. After six years, northerners feel that it is now their right to have one of their own in Abuja’s presidential villa, says Campbell.
Adding to the tensions is the fact that instability caused by Boko Haram could prevent voters in three northeastern states, where support for Buhari is strong, from going to the polls. On Feb. 3, a female suicide bomber attacked an election rally in a fourth northeastern state, underscoring the threat. Nor have provisions been made for the estimated 1.6 million Nigerians who have fled the fighting over the past five years and now live far from where they are registered to vote. Analysts consider them, as northern Muslims, to be likely Buhari voters. It’s to Jonathan’s short-term advantage if they can’t vote, but winning an election without a clear mandate could lead to even greater instability.
Over the past few weeks, Boko Haram–which numbers about 15,000 fighters, according to Amnesty International–has begun to press its advantage while the country is caught up in electioneering. The militants have launched a series of deadly attacks in provincial capitals long thought to be beyond their reach. The group has also sent fighters into neighboring Cameroon, twice attacking military bases and abducting at least 80 people in January (24 have been freed), further destabilizing a region already on edge.
Amid the growing chaos, Buhari has made security the centerpiece of his campaign. He promises to stamp out the jihadists, something Jonathan has failed to do. For that stance, among others, his popularity has surged, according to the Afrobarometer poll. While few thought he had a chance when campaigning started in early January, Buhari and Jonathan are now neck and neck.
Jonathan holds that any attempt to rescue the kidnapped girls–57 of whom have now escaped–would endanger their lives, but to many Nigerians the claim rings hollow. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has publicly announced that the girls would be forcibly married off or sold into slavery and that it would use women as suicide bombers. (At least 11, including one girl believed to be just 10 years old, have blown themselves up since June, though it’s not clear that any are from Chibok.) “How much more danger could they be in?” asks Yesufu. Government spokesman Mike Omeri contends that Jonathan has “deployed all our assets and capabilities” toward combatting Boko Haram and finding the girls but that “operational details cannot be given.” He adds that Jonathan has refused on moral grounds to make the insurgency and the rescue of the girls a campaign issue. “You shouldn’t play politics with the lives of your citizens,” he says.
Instead, Jonathan has campaigned on the economy, which has averaged 7% growth over the past decade, even as unemployment doubled, from 12% in 2006 to 24% in 2011. “What Nigerians care about is eba and soup,” says Ken Saro-Wiwa, senior special assistant to the President, referring to a common Nigerian dish. “What they want to know is how this election is going to affect their livelihoods. People in Lagos don’t care about terrorism as much as those in Abuja [which has been hit three times by terrorist attacks], and the people in the south, it doesn’t affect them.”
For many years, Western officials largely viewed Boko Haram as a local concern. The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, or People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad. It earned the nickname Boko Haram, which roughly translates as “Western Education Is Forbidden,” because of its vehement opposition to Westernization and secular education in Nigeria. In 2009, after the Nigerian military killed Boko Haram founder and locally revered spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf, it evolved from a fringe radical group into a force to be reckoned with when it launched a revenge-based insurgency campaign that gained momentum and some local support. The military’s harsh tactics and petty corruption alienated local residents, making it easier for Boko Haram to recruit volunteers. Analysts say the group has also successfully exploited social and economic inequities endemic to the northeast. The region has some of the highest unemployment in the country, and while Nigeria averages a 57% literacy rate, less than 15% of adults in Borno state, where Boko Haram is strongest, can read. By July of last year the group, which says it wants to see its harsh interpretation of Islamic law put in effect across Nigeria, had destroyed 900 schools and killed 176 teachers in Borno alone, according to Governor Kashim Shettima.
Boko Haram is now capable of holding territory from which it can launch attacks on the capital and into neighboring countries. It has pushed into a strategic transit corridor on the border areas between Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Niger and Chad are already under threat from militant groups like the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
According to Fatima Akilu, director of Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser’s counterextremism program, Boko Haram has occasionally joined forces with other al-Qaeda-linked groups in Sudan, Mali and Somalia, either for operational assistance or training. And the group recently formed another worrying alliance. Shortly after the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) declared its caliphate, last June, Boko Haram leader Shekau pledged his support and adopted the black banner of ISIS. In August, Shekau announced that he had established his own caliphate in areas controlled by Boko Haram and that he would eventually expand his territory to reach the historic borders of the 14th to 19th century Bornu Empire, which included parts of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
Boko Haram’s territorial spread may ultimately be restricted to the cultural and linguistic boundaries of the Kanuri tribe, which populates the area where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet and from which Boko Haram draws most of its recruits and support, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. That doesn’t mean its operatives can’t travel farther afield; it has demonstrated the ability to mount sophisticated attacks on army bases and even cities. In 2011 a Boko Haram militant drove a car bomb through the reception area of the U.N.’s Abuja headquarters, and it has attacked the capital on at least two other occasions. For the moment, Pham believes that Boko Haram does not have the capabilities to launch terrorist attacks in the West, but the group claims to have global ambitions. In December 2013, Shekau declared in a video address, “Tomorrow you will see us in America itself. Our operation is not confined to Nigeria. It is for the whole world.”
The failure of the military in the fight against the insurgents has caused a crisis of confidence in a country where many once considered the army a source of pride, largely because of its participation in African peacekeeping missions. With a standing army of a relatively modest 130,000, Nigeria is nonetheless the world’s eighth largest contributor of troops to U.N. peacekeeping efforts. But the military appears to have met its match in Boko Haram–a fact that has alarmed many Nigerians. “We have the best army in Africa, and they can’t find 200 missing girls?” asks the Rev. Enoch Mark, father of one of the girls.
Western security officials say they have seen little evidence of a robust attempt to track the girls down. Many Nigerians suspect that corruption, which they believe has resulted in equipment shortages, is the primary cause of the military’s weakness. When Boko Haram fighters attacked a military post in January, soldiers said they were forced to flee because they ran out of ammunition, and the air support they requested never came. National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki acknowledged that there were deficits in the equipment and training of the Nigerian forces, but he also pointed out that Boko Haram claimed to have looted a substantial arsenal from the Baga garrison, and called the soldiers “cowards.” Borno Governor Shettima publicly complained in February 2014 that the militants were better armed and better motivated than the Nigerian soldiers.
Corruption remains endemic in Nigeria. Out of 174 countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2014, Nigeria ranked alongside five others as the 15th most corrupt country in the world. One expatriate doing business with government representatives in Lagos makes a game of tallying the value of high-priced Rolex watches on the wrists of civil servants he meets with. “Corruption is so rife here that no one even bothers to hide it,” he says. He asked not to be named for fear of backlash.
In addition to strengthening security, Buhari has made ending corruption one of his key campaign pledges, promising to establish an independent corruption watchdog and to strengthen laws protecting whistle-blowers. According to Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has written a book on Nigeria’s modern history, in his first stretch in office Buhari was one of the rare heads of state who was able to clamp down on corruption. “In fact, he was removed from power by the military because his anticorruption policies were pinching certain interests within the leadership too hard,” Campbell says. But Buhari’s firm stance on corruption was part of an authoritarian style of government that included crackdowns on journalists and has some worried about what his return might mean for civil liberties.
Lai Mohammed, spokesman for Buhari’s party, says his boss has an ambitious strategy to stave off an insurgency that threatens to curb Nigeria’s growth. “The key is to address the issue of empowerment and poverty in the northeast by having something akin to a Marshall Plan for the area,” he says. Buhari’s military past, Mohammed argues, makes him the ideal commander in chief both for the military and for economic responses to Boko Haram. Jonathan might have been fine for Nigeria in peacetime, he adds, but now the country is at war. “Every season has its prophet. Buhari is the man Nigeria needs now.”
Framed by ranks of cranes, the city of Abuja is still emerging from the farmland it was before the capital was moved in 1991 from coastal Lagos in the south to the country’s central and regionally neutral plateau. Modern office blocks are surrounded by red dirt parking lots, and farmers till the soil between partially completed highway interchanges.
Like the capital, Nigeria’s democracy is still a work in progress. With its wealth and rapidly expanding population, Nigeria will inevitably play a significant role in an economically ascendant Africa, for good or for bad. As one of the continent’s most powerful leaders, the winner of this month’s election will have to heal the fissures in Nigerian governance and society that have allowed Boko Haram to flourish. That is why Aisha Yesufu and the other Bring Back Our Girls activists raise their voices and unfurl their banners every day in the same Abuja park. Not because they want a change in government but because they want to change how they are governed. “No country has the right to call itself civilized if it allows 219 of its citizens to be kidnapped with no repercussions,” says Yesufu, referring to the remaining missing girls, as she leads the protesters in a song borrowed from John Lennon. “All we are saying is bring back our girls,” she sings.
No matter who wins on Feb. 14, Yesufu says, she won’t stop protesting until the Chibok girls come home. If the new President can help make that happen, reuniting mothers, fathers and siblings with the daughters and sisters they so terribly miss, Nigeria will rejoice–and the country will likely take a significant step toward a future of unity and togetherness. If the girls stay in the hands of Boko Haram, however, their continued absence from their families will play out as a long, humiliating defeat for the new government–and a victory for the extremists who yearn for a medieval Islamic state.
This appears in the February 16, 2015 issue of TIME.