Due to deep-seated regional, ethnic and religious cleavages, elections in Nigeria have been bitterly contested ever since their reintroduction in 1999. In a country where politics is widely regarded as the way to access power and resources, the stakes are invariably high, but the context of the 2015 elections was particularly worrying. Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had been in power since the return to multiparty democracy in 1999 and was widely regarded as corrupt and high-handed. Moreover, his party was divided: its founder and eminence grise, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, had publicly denounced Jonathan’s decision to run for re-election. This enabled Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition candidate, to rally some of the major opposition parties to form the All Progressives Congress in 2013.
Tensions also ran high because Buhari, who had lost the2003, 2007 and 2011 elections (allegedly due to electoral fraud), declared that he would not accept another defeat. More than 800 people died in protests after Buhari lost in 2011 and there were widespread fears that the 2015 election would be even more violent.
One of the few grounds for optimism was Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) reputation for competence and independence, which had steadily improved since 2010 under the chairmanship of Attahiru Jega. However, a number of delays and technical glitches in the run-up to the election threatened to undermine these gains.
In this context, election candidates signed an agreement to prevent electoral violence, which became known as the Abuja Accord. The agreement was a voluntary, fairly ad hoc process born from the shared concern of Nigerian elites and the international community that the elections might trigger widespread violence and exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions to the point of destabilizing the country.