ABUJA, NIGERIA —
Africa’s largest economy is faltering. Tumbling global oil prices have exposed the country's failure to diversify and save for a rainy day. The devaluation of the currency is hitting average peoples' wallets in this import-dependent country.
And Boko Haram militants have turned Nigeria's northeast into a battlefield.
Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan is up for re-election on Saturday, and a tough political environment is making the contest Nigeria's tightest since the end of military rule in 1999.
Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party has run the country relatively unchallenged since 1999. But the opposition came together in 2013 to create the All Progressives Congress and coalesced behind Muhammadu Buhari as its candidate.
The Congress, which has adopted for its banner a broom as a symbol of a clean start, has cast the election as a referendum on 16 years of rule under the Jonathan’s party.
“We seek a new Nigeria. It starts with us. It starts today…. Insecurity, corruption and the economy collapse have brought the nation down,” Buhari, who has run for the office four times, said recently.
That message has resonated for many Nigerians.
“People are suffering in Nigeria, great suffering in Nigeria,” said Ijeoma Okafor, who lives in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos. “No good road, no good hospital, no stable light, no drinking water, no transportation, nothing in Nigeria is moving.”
Jonathan’s party has been touting his “Transformation Agenda,” begun in 2011 when he was first elected. Supporters ran a 36-page insert in a Sunday newspaper this week laying out the president’s “achievements” state-by-state, sector-by-sector.
Jonathan has also attacked Buhari for his age—he’s 72— and the fact that he was the country’s military ruler for a period in the 1980s.
“Are you going back to the old days? Are you moving forward? Nigeria must move forward,” Jonathan, 57, said at a recent rally. “Nigeria is for the youth. Nigeria is not for old people like us. The youth must redefine this country.”
Roughly 70 percent of the country’s 173 million people are under 30. Unemployment is over 20 percent, according to most international estimates, and both candidates have promised to create millions of jobs, if elected.
The country’s fortunes have turned on oil for decades. It became a member of the international oil cartel OPEC in the early 1970s and petroleum products are by far the country’s largest cash-earning export, earning it around $92 billion in 2012, according to U.S. government figures.
The U.S. was a major market for Nigerian oil up until 2012, comprising around 10 percent of all U.S. oil imports. That figure has dwindled to around 1 percent, however, with the U.S. boom in shale oil and gas production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Jonathan's first term also saw several high-level corruption scandals.
Buhari and the opposition backers have also criticized Jonathan for not doing more to quash the nearly six-year insurgency by Boko Haram in the north.
Thousands have been killed and more than one million displaced by the radical Islamist militants in their campaign to create an Islamic-style “caliphate” in the northeast.
In recent weeks, Nigerian security forces have appeared to gain the upper hand, driving militants out of several key towns and cities, assisted armed forces from neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger and foreign mercenaries from South Africa and elsewhere.
Still, analysts said the vote was still too close to call. Election officials are hoping that a new biometric, computerized voting card system will tamp down fraud, which marred the 2011 election and led to rioting and violence in some northern states.
Security agencies have been put on high alert and movement has been restricted for many Nigerians starting Friday.