As Nigeria readies for a crucial election that may well define the future of its democracy, the BBC and its crack team of correspondents led by the host of the BBC Focus on Africa show Akwasi Sarpong are just as ready for a comprehensive coverage, Saturday.
Sarpong, who has covered three African elections for the BBC already, perceives his fourth assignment- the Nigerian election- as very significant in many respects.
“Nigeria is not just Africa’s most populous country. It is one of the continent’s leading oil producers and the largest economy with many major international investments
“The country is also battling an Islamist militant insurgency in the north east- a challenge that many fear maybe on the rise globally.
“Compared to elections coverage in the other countries I’ve been deployed to since I joined the organisation some five years ago, the BBC is dedicating huge resources to reporting on this African election,” he told Myjoyonline.com in an e-mail interview hours before the elections.
Stationed in the country’s capital, Abuja, Sarpong and his team, some of whom have been deployed to key states, across the country would keep listeners in touch with the great stories behind an election that has so much as stake for Africa’s most populous country.
Just hours before the election, the BBC has reported that the Boko Haram Headquarters has been retaken by government forces, news which will come as a big relief for the election stakeholders and the citizens as well.
Sarpong, reports President Goodluck Jonathan as pledging to do ”everything humanly possible” to end the Boko Haram menace, but Gen Buhari who remains the realistic contender to Jonathan, out of 13 other aspirants, has described the governing PDP’s 16 year rule as ”a disaster for the country and its citizens” and promised to crush the Islamist insurgency within months if elected.
While the Boko Haram menace remains a key issue underlining Saturday’s election, “increasing joblessness, the impact of the slump in global oil prices on Nigeria’s economy and its devalued Naira currency” are also issues manifestly crucial for the Nigerian.
“The regular person living in an oil rich country like Nigeria believes cheap petrol, diesel and kerosene should be a birth right. And that is an electoral issue,” Sarpong sums up the aspirations of the average Nigerian voter.
There are many Nigerians who want to cement the country’s democratic credentials, the passionate supporters are pretty much engaged in the election activities and would not accept any attempt to undermine the vote.
With 14 presidential aspirants contesting, only two- incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan and General Buhari have a realistic chance of winning, Akwasi Sarpong concluded.
With his depth of experience covering the African beat and a rich history of engagement with some of the most influential African leaders, Sarpong promises an impeccable coverage of the Nigerian election.
Akwasi Sarpong reporting at a polling station
The following is the full details of the e-mail interview with Akwasi Sarpong.
1. Where in Nigeria are you based for the coverage?
I am currently in Abuja – the Nigerian capital – where I shall be presenting the radio programme, BBC Focus on Africa. I’m here with a team of BBC correspondents and producers, some of whom are also deploying to key states across the country.
Our coverage is across key programmes in English across radio, tv and online. The BBC is sending Focus on Africa TV for World News, Focus on Africa radio, the global breakfast show Newsday for BBC World service, Outside source and other current affairs programmes popular with African and global audiences. Our Somali, Arabic and Kinyarwanda/Kirundi audiences will also be following daily reports at bbcsomali.com , bbcarabic.com and bbcgahuza.com . Besides broadcasting from Nigeria Focus on Africa and its sister programmes will also be engaging audiences on key social media platforms. For example the Hausa team is deploying its whatsapp service on 234 809 295 0707. This will give our global audiences another opportunity to offer their opinion via pictures, text and audio,”
2. Have you covered African elections for the BBC before?
The Nigerian poll is my fourth assignment covering an African election for the BBC World Service. Previously I’ve reported on the presidential election in Tunisia, Malawi and of course my country Ghana.
3. If yes for which country or countries and how different is the coverage of those election from the one you would cover in Nigeria.
Elections in a country the size of Nigeria are a landmark event considering its regional and global implications. Nigeria is not just Africa’s most populous country. It is one of the continent’s leading oil producers and the largest economy with many major international investments. So naturally, many around the world will be keenly watching the polls. The country is also battling an Islamist militant insurgency in the north east- a challenge that many fear maybe on the rise globally. Compared to elections coverage in the other countries I’ve been deployed to since I joined the organisation some five years ago, the BBC is dedicating huge resources to reporting on this African election.
Of course there are common issues underlying people’s concerns at every African election like rising youth unemployment, unreliable electricity and other utilities, poor health care, falling education standards, a lack of or deteriorating public infrastructure (especially roads) and bad governance- just to mention a few. And voters want to see an improvement as an outcome of their participation in the electoral process. I saw and reported on those variables from Ghana to Malawi, and Tunisia to Nigeria. As mentioned before, the threat of Islamic insurgency by Boko Haram militants who recently pledged loyalty to Islamic State however raises the stakes a notch higher. The incumbent government appears to have turned the tide against the militants who HAVE BEEN maimING, killNG and had seized territory in the country’s north east in its bid to assert a Caliphate like IS is seeking to establish across parts of Syria and Iraq. All these have raised the bar for the candidates who have to convince , not just Nigerians, but the world of their capacity to protect people, assets and investments in the country from insurgent attacks.
4. What is the security situation in Nigeria days before the crucial election?
People are generally anxious! It took the postponement of a general election earlier scheduled for the middle of February, for the Nigerian military to make progress after struggling for years to contain the deadly Boko Haram jihadists. Their victory in recapturing the town of Bama a week ago came as part of a string of successes recorded by the Nigerian military in the last month. And in his interview with the BBC this week incumbent President Jonathan had cause to sound confident that the insurgents are finally about to be decisively defeated. Military spokesman Chris Olukolade has said troops would continue to pursue the militants towards Nigeria’s porous border with Cameroon. The collaboration with neighbouring countries, mainly Chad, Niger and Cameroon, who have provided troops to help tackle the insurgents has been crucial. Boko Haram’s recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) operating in Iraqi and Syria has many Nigerians worried although the military say it is not fazed by this.
5. Pundits have described the election as a two-horse race between the governing PDP and the opposition APC, is it an assertion you subscribe to
Fourteen candidates are contesting the election but only President Jonathan and Gen Buhari have a realistic chance of winning.
6. What are the key issues underpinning this election.
The threats of insurgent attacks by the Islamist Boko Haram group, corruption in public office, increasing joblessness, the impact of the slump in global oil prices on Nigeria’s economy and its devalued Naira currency.
7. The election had to be rescheduled to allow for the government deal with the threat of Boko Haram. In your estimation and with the benefit of hindsight would you say it was good decision taken by government.
Opinions on this differ. While some say the postponement helped reduce tensions and potential electoral violence, there are others yet who strongly argue that an incumbent government confident of imminent electoral victory would not have agreed for a rescheduling of the poll. As for the reason given for the postponement, the Nigerian army’s reported success in recapturing Bama – one of the two most important towns held by Boko Haram in Borno state – may justify the decision.
8. I am sure the threat of Boko Haram remains a key issue in the campaign. What are the key contenders saying about drawing a road map to resolve the canker posed by the Boko Haram. Are they united in the fight against Boko or they are divided with divergent opinions on how to fight the canker?
The rise of Boko Haram in the north-east has put security at the centre of their election campaigns but the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his main rival Gen Muhammadu Buhari have clashed over how to handle the insurgency.
While the President has pledged to do ”everything humanly possible” to end the violence, Gen Buhari has described the governing PDP’s 16 year rule as ”a disaster for the country and its citizens” and promised to crush the Islamist insurgency within months if elected.
9 Corruption, unemployment, general economic hardships and threat of Boko haram which one do you think the citizens are more concerned about and wants addressed first?
Nigerians I’ve spoken to abroad and in the country are desperate for an end to Boko Haram. That frustration is closely followed by their concerns for the other issues to be addressed.
10. How has the fall in the global prices of crude oil affected the economy in Nigerian and how is it playing out in the elections?
As Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria is concerned with the volatile price of oil and its effect on investment in the country. Oil production here has been hit hard. After over 50 years of mostly onshore production, oil companies here are looking to go deeper into the ocean to find more. Reforms in the oil sector saw local companies being urged to buy oil stakes or partner international oil companies. Local companies that took the risk took on partnerships with international companies dependent on higher world oil prices although prices slumped midway into their partnerships. Their expected return on investments will now take much longer because of the fall in prices.
Currently the government is keen on austerity measures in the form of reduced spending and higher taxes on luxury goods but the regular person living in an oil rich country like Nigeria believes cheap petrol, diesel and kerosene should be a birth right. And that is an electoral issue.
12. Given the history of Nigerian elections in the past can you say that this week’s election will be violence free?
On social media there are signs of intolerance being exhibited between supporters of the main candidates for president. Nigerians are a very passionate people and very engaged with this election process. Based on conversations I have had in Abuja I get the impression people here want to see their country  cement its credentials as a democracy and will be keen to see die-hard supporters of the various camps restrained. However they will not accept any attempt to undermine the vote. As I write, US President Barack Obama has in a message to Nigerians called on all leaders and candidates to make it clear to their supporters that violence has no place in democratic elections – and that they will not incite, support or engage in any kind of violence – before, during, or after the votes are counted. Obama makes  the point that succesful elections and democratic progress will help Nigeria meet the urgent threat of Boko Haram, which he says must be stopped. I am inclined to think that this message will resonate with all Nigerians who ultimately want to see an end to the insurgency that has put their country in the global headlines for all the wrong reasons.
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