The news that Boko Haram has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS) makes for sombre reading. The conflict raging in west Africa has taken thousands of lives, destroyed homes and destabilised a fragile region. The human cost is a tragedy and the political ramifications alarming. Nigeria’s presidential election, already postponed, is close to being unhinged as the conflict with Boko Haram becomes a focal point of the campaign. Indeed, should it go ahead? If the election were to be deferred again, it would not guarantee against a scenario of riots, authoritarian twists and political manoeuvring. A second postponement would send out two signals: that Nigeria is not ready for democracy in action and that it is weakening in the face of Boko Haram’s assault.
The political system in Nigeria has often been marred by corruption and lack of transparency, and elections there have had a history of violence, with contested and unaccountable results. A further deferral would only compound these associations, which prevent the most populous African country from being a natural regional leader.
Not only would this embolden Boko Haram; it would demonstrate that the Nigerian state cannot guarantee national security through a critical period. Conflicts such as these are often swayed by events which shift the political momentum and this could alter the delicate balance of forces.
Yet if the election does go ahead and it follows the trend of Nigerian presidential polls, the aftermath could be chaotic, with widespread civil violence, increased ethnic tension and a breakdown of order. In such a fraught milieu, Boko Haram could find fertile ground for recruitment and would most likely take the opportunity to seize key areas in the mainly-Muslim north and further solidify its position. The outcome could be decreased security, control and territory for whichever government emerges.