Since their country is by far and away Africa's most populous, its biggest economy, and home to both its largest Muslim community as well as its largest Christian community, any time Nigerians go to the polls, their collective decision not only reverberates across the continent but sends ripples through the international system. However, the stakes have never been higher, as voters prepare to go to the polls this Saturday in what is perhaps the most competitive general election in the country's history.

The presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place on Feb. 14, but Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) postponed them less than a week before voting was to begin, citing concerns that military and security officials would be unable to provide security and logistical support for the vote because they were engaged in operations against the militant group Boko Haram, which had overrun large parts of three northeastern states. Moreover, although the INEC did not officially cite it as a reason for the decision to delay the polls until March 28, there was also concern that the backlog in distributing biometric permanent voter cards (PVCs) — only 45 million out of some 68 million had been handed out at the time — would effectively disenfranchise more than a third of the electorate.

Many observers were skeptical of the decision, asking what the country's armed forces expected they could do in six weeks against an insurgency that they had been failed to check in six years. Supporters of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) were even more critical, crying foul amid suspicions that the postponement was somehow an underhanded maneuver by incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan to avoid both personal defeat as well as widespread losses for his People's Democratic Party (PDP), which has governed the West African country since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then the unexpected happened. After long being on a roll, Boko Haram started to lose ground before a determined offensive by the Nigerian military, reportedly assisted by foreign contractors, operating in coordination with forces from neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, the latter two previously having acquiesced to the militants operating in their territory. In quick succession, the insurgents went from occupying an area larger than that of the state of Maryland to being encircled in a handful of districts in just extreme northeastern Borno state. While Boko Haram is still very dangerous — not only did it recently pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but it has stepped up terrorist attacks in the aftermath of its conventional losses — it is clearly much degraded, a point the head of Nigeria's National Intelligence Agency and the country's chief of Defense Intelligence emphasized when they were in Washington two weeks ago.

While security has loomed large over most of the campaign season, the recent battlefield successes against Boko Haram have occasioned the reemergence of other issues. With the largest proven petroleum reserves in Africa, it is no surprise that, despite the diversification of the economy in recent years, hydrocarbons still make up some 80 percent of the Nigerian government's revenues. Consequently, the dramatic fall in global oil prices has taken a heavy toll on the Nigerian economy: the naira is trading at record lows against the U.S. dollar, the Nigerian Stock Exchange is down by almost one-third from a year ago, and expectations for economic growth in 2015 have been revised downward, as has the federal budget, which has been recalibrated twice in recent months — and will probably have to be again after the election. Jonathan had presided over impressive economic growth and several major infrastructure initiatives until the oil prices fell; now he faces voters for whom pocketbook issues may increasingly be paramount.

The main challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, was a onetime military chief who overthrew an elected president in 1983, inaugurating a series of coups and countercoups — including the one that tossed him out less than two years later — that bedeviled Nigeria for nearly two decades. As a civilian, Buhari has run unsuccessfully for the presidency three times, but this time has assembled a disparate coalition around the desire for a change from the ruling PDP. While short on detailed proposals, Buhari nonetheless projects the image of the military man he was: calm, assured and disciplined. Yet with the country roughly divided down the middle between Muslims and Christians and the security concerns concentrated in the predominantly Muslim north, Buhari's path to victory would require significant inroads among southern Christians, many of whom, even if they don't share his opponents' view that the old general is a closet Islamist, question his ability to manage a complex modern economy (his autarkic policies during his tenure as military ruler, especially after he broke with the International Monetary Fund, wreaked substantial havoc in the day). On the other hand, with the median age in the country being just over 18 years, many Nigerians simply have no memory of this period.

At the end of the day, the result may well be determined not only by voter turnout, but whom is able to vote. Last week, the chairman of the INEC acknowledged that nearly 20 percent of registered voters still had not received the cards they will need to cast their ballots.

And it is not just the integrity and legitimacy of the election that is a concern. The intensely competitive presidential race and exceptional circumstances under which it is being run have given rise to concern that the loser and/or his supporters may refuse to accept the outcome, even if the conduct of the election itself is deemed credible. Although the "Abuja Accord" signed earlier this year by almost all the presidential candidates in the presence of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan committed them to not only running issues-based, non-violent campaigns — and denouncing violence should it emerge before, during or after the polls — as well as contesting any disputes only through legal channels, with so much at stake, who knows what may happen? It is worth recalling that the last election, which was generally deemed to have met international standards, was nonetheless followed by mob violence that resulted in over 800 deaths and the destruction of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property — all because partisans of the losing candidate were whipped into a veritable frenzy by some of his more irresponsible allies.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of tomorrow's Nigerian elections. Not only is the immediate political future of "Africa's giant" to be determined, but a major signal will be sent to the more than dozen-and-a-half other African countries which have polls scheduled over the course of the next year. Moreover, while the effective application of military force has scored some significant victories over Boko Haram in the last few weeks, a sustainable solution to the insurgency will require a combination of political, economic and social programs — that is, improved governance, economic opportunity and social welfare — to truly secure the country. Only a government with a clear and legitimate mandate can hope to undertake such a mission, especially given the constraints imposed by falling oil prices and other pressures, as well as the tough decisions which lie ahead. It is time for Nigerians to choose such a government and for their friends to support them in the effort.

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.