YAOUNDÉ – Nigerians head to the polls for general elections this coming Sunday, February 25. Voters in Africa’s most populous nation will be choosing a new president and vice president, as well as members of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The elections are scheduled to take place amid serious security concerns, as threats from various armed groups throughout the country.

The militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, has been waging an insurgency for more than a decade. Herdsmen frequently conduct armed raids in rural areas. The central and northwestern parts of the country have seen waves of kidnappings. Tribal and ethnic rhetoric frequently accompanies electoral campaigns.

The country is divided religiously, between Muslims who live mostly in the north, and Christians in the south and south-east, as well as a minority – between 1.5% and 7% according to different demographic studies – who follow local traditions.

In an exclusive interview ahead of the elections, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of the capital archdiocese, Abuja, told Crux Nigerians aren’t looking at voting a Christian or Muslim, but electing “God-fearing, honest, vibrant, and transparent leaders for a better Nigeria.”

Kaigama criticized Buhari for failing to meet Nigeria’s security challenge. He called on the next president – whoever it is – to shake up the country’s security apparatus and tackle head-on the several groups that continue to threaten the nation. “Boko Haram, herdsmen militia, bandits, and the so-called unknown gunmen,” Kaigama said, “have continued to unleash terror in different parts of the country.”

The presidential incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, term-limited and will not be returning to the office he has held since 2015. Whoever becomes the next President will have to deal with the country’s daunting security challenges and economic hardship.

18 candidates are competing for the top job, but opinion polls suggest only three of them have a real chance of winning. They are Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, who is standing for the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) party, Atiku Abubakar, 76, running on behalf of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi, 61, who is seeking to upset the two-party system by propelling the Labor Party to the pinnacle.

Though he was critical of Buhari’s performance on the security front, Kaigama said the outgoing president’s “commitment to ensuring transparency, probity and fairness in the forthcoming elections through the signing of the Electoral Bill 2022 into law is a step in the right direction.”

The Independent National Electoral Commission in Nigeria has made significant strides, as well. The Commission has put in place some, at least, of the infrastructure and equipment conducive to successful elections.

Some of those include new technologies for the accreditation, transmission, and collation of results. Permanent Voters Cards have been issued to many who registered for them, as well.

“The people have been well sensitized on the importance of voting with a firm and clear conscience for credible leaders who will bring about the true dividends of Democracy, Kaigama said. “The generality of the populace is enthusiastically waiting to cast their votes in what portends to be the most important election in the history of Nigeria.”

Kaigama said the the defining issues in the election are security – which appears to be worsening – and the economy, which has not lifted some 133 million Nigerians out of poverty, in a nation of 225 million people.

“A few of the candidates have been forthright in addressing some of these issues or concerns bedeviling our polity,” Kaigama said. “Others have not fared well at all. At this point, we must all subscribe to the politics of the socio-economic reconstruction and development of Nigeria.”

“Politicians who aspire for office must prove their worth and convince us that they are well equipped to deliver the goods,” Kaigama also said. “If the primary purpose of party campaigns is to win elections, then the justifiable end is good governance.”

Amid increasing concerns over potential disruptions to the democratic process, Kaigama said he believes there is hope for free and fair elections.

“It would be alarmist, at this point, to conclude that insecurity could disrupt the next elections.  All hope is not lost yet. There are still grounds to be optimistic that all will go well,” Kaigama said. “However,” he continued, “we continue to insist that the government has a constitutional and statutory duty of protecting human rights and securing basic justice for all. The role of government is to guarantee the minimum conditions that make human rights and justice possible.”

Kaigama said it appears to him neither Buhari nor his administration has taken the necessary steps to ensure that terrorists are neutralized, criminals are apprehended, bandits are defeated, and kidnappers are forced out of business.

“The people look to their leaders for this, at the very least. The growth and spread of various ‘self-help’ security organizations is a clear indication that the authorities have lost the support of the generality of the populace,” Kaigama said, adding that the next president will have to face the fact that the current strategy “is not working and should be redesigned.”

“What is more,” Kaigama said, “keeping the same people at the helm of the security apparatus for a long time is counter productive and does not help in building a robust security apparatus that can checkmate the onslaught of these terrorists and criminals.”

Kaigama encouraged all eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote.

“We are not looking for a Christian or a Muslim president.” Kaigama said. “Rather we are looking for a good President who is able to promote what is right, what is fair and what advances the common good.”

Nigeria’s next president, he said, “should be passionate about advancing the growth, progress and stability” of the country.