In mid-summer 2022, Nigeria is just seven months away from elections that could strengthen, or set back, its democracy. Good news includes a surge in voter registrations and a wave of civic engagement among young Nigerians who in recent years have often despaired of better governance through elections. Yet dangers loom: risks of electoral violence or disputed election results in a country where political and criminal violence has reached new levels. To help Africa’s most populous nation pivot toward stability — and to indirectly bolster democratization across the continent — the United States and other international partners should provide diplomatic, political and technical support for Nigeria’s electoral authority.

Vendors sold newspapers in 2015 reporting the election then that marked a consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy. Next year’s elections offer opportunity for more democratic progress but will need international support. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
Vendors sold newspapers in 2015 reporting the election then that marked a consolidation of Nigeria’s democracy. Next year’s elections offer opportunity for more democratic progress but will need international support. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)

In recent years, chronic upheavals in Nigeria have spread beyond the long-running Islamist extremist insurgency in the northeast. These include other insurgencies in the north, secessionism in the south and increased, organized crime. When scores of gunmen seized a prison near Abuja this month and freed more than 800 prisoners, including members of the extremist group that claimed responsibility for the attack, Nigerians saw it as yet another shocking breakdown in their country’s ability to maintain basic security.

The turmoil poses acute risks to Nigeria’s election campaign season, which opens September 28 for the National Assembly and presidential elections next February. Campaigns begin October 12 for state elections to be held in March. The insecurity underscores the urgency of ensuring that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has the political backing it needs — at home and from the international community — to ensure its own independence from politics and the safety and credibility of the coming polls. Nigeria’s international partners should publicly signal support for INEC’s independence — a step that U.S. policymakers have taken in the past — thus pressing Nigeria’s political forces and leaders to do the same.

A Chance to Strengthen Democracy?

Young Nigerians especially are mobilizing for an election that will have enormous consequences for their, and Nigeria’s, future. Nigerians have stood in long lines to register to vote, so many that INEC extended the registration period to accommodate demand. Compared to the 84 million voters registered for the most recent national elections, in 2019, almost 10.5 million more voters had registered by June 27. About 70 percent of new registrants are aged 18 to 35.

Nigerians say their enthusiasm is driven partly by a sense of an election that is more open for candidates who might have the integrity and openness they say they are seeking, especially on the enormous challenges facing the country. For decades, Nigeria’s governments have been dominated by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and, in the past eight years, the All Progressives Congress (APC). Reports by the Gallup polling organization and Nigerian news media underscore public frustration with the parties’ performance and interest in an alternative.

President Muhammadu Buhari, of the APC, has been in office since 2015, when he defeated the incumbent, the PDP’s Goodluck Jonathan. The pair achieved the first peaceful transfer to an opposition party in Nigeria’s history. Now, Buhari cannot run again because he has served the maximum two terms. This has created a more open election in which polls and news coverage reflect strong interest, notably among youth, in an energetic third-party candidacy that emerged this spring. Overall, the pro-democracy, civic energies around this election create opportunities for further democratic consolidation in Nigeria, a momentum that the international community should seize.

Younger Nigerians’ demands for change carry echoes of the massive protest movement called #EndSARS, which focused initially in 2020 on police violence by the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The movement has broadened to cover grievances including rights abuses, unemployment, endemic violence and corruption. That enthusiasm and positive outlook after years of growing desperation in the continent’s most populous country should inspire support from the international community. Still, that very frustration and demand for change, combined with the inevitably tenacious campaigns by the existing political parties to hold onto or retake power, and the already volatile tensions across the country, also risk electoral violence that could dash those hopes and fuel greater outrage.

Thus the national and regional stakes are high for INEC’s administration of credible, transparent elections. INEC suffered criticism in 2019 when it postponed the presidential vote just hours before its scheduled start, saying election materials had not arrived at some locations. Yet election administration in Nigeria has improved steadily since the nation transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999. This month’s off-cycle gubernatorial election in Osun state illustrated that improvement, but also the continuing risks of violence against election workers. A citizen-led initiative, Watching the Vote, organized by the nonprofit civic group Yiaga Africa, commended INEC for “significant improvement in logistics management.” But the observers also cited “cases of violence and disruption” of the voting and tabulation that caused “severe injuries” to poll workers.

Nigerian Steps Toward a Credible Vote

An important figure in Nigeria’s election processes is the INEC chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu. First appointed by President Buhari in 2015, Yakubu became the first chairman to be named to a second five-year term. Buhari and Yakubu have both said they want credible elections in 2023 to be their legacy, and the INEC chairman will need strong domestic and international political support.

Supporting INEC on the domestic front means (1) ensuring that political figures refrain from anything that smacks of political interference with the election process, and (2) that the Nigerian military and police share full information on the precarious security situation, so that the commission can make informed decisions for a secure election. This is acute in disparate locales, overrun by criminality, where it could be difficult to hold elections at all.

Security forces and political leaders have too often obscured the severity of the violence confronting the country, sometimes issuing demonstrably false information to the public or obfuscating their own responsibility for security. This, plus obvious security lapses among Nigeria’s robust security agencies, undercuts the military’s almost paternalistic assurances that it will cooperate with INEC to protect the elections. Recent lapses include not only the July 5 jailbreak near Abuja, but an attack on Buhari’s motorcade the same day (he wasn’t in it at the time, but two people were injured), a June 5 church massacre that killed 50 people, and a March attack by gunmen on a train from Abuja to Kaduna that left at least seven passengers dead.

he 2023 elections will be held in a much more complex security environment than in the past. President Buhari should clearly direct Nigeria’s security organs to improve their coordination with INEC and each other on security threats. These bodies include at least a half-dozen federal agencies and a growing number of state-level security forces, some of them informal.

International Support Is Needed

The international community can help. The United States provides robust technical support to Nigeria for elections, but political support is equally crucial. Before Nigeria’s critical 2015 election, U.S. officials and non-government democracy advocates invited INEC’s then-chairman to Washington for consultations on ways to support a credible election. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria just months before the vote to underscore U.S. support for INEC’s conduct of fair elections.

Nigeria’s election campaigns will begin in nine weeks. Any delays in a clear mobilization by the international community to support free and fair elections for this linchpin country in Africa risk repeating a lamentably late effort by Nigeria’s partners to discourage violence amid the 2020 #EndSARS protests. In that case, earlier engagement by the United States and other partners of Nigeria might have helped defuse tensions and produce a more peaceful outcome.

The coming months offer opportunities. President Buhari will attend the United Nations General Assembly meetings in September — and, we can presume, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December. Diplomats can emphasize to him the importance of maintaining his pledge of guaranteeing elections that carry the prospect of another commendable milestone in Nigeria’s democratic development.

In the face of Nigeria’s current upheaval, the country’s leaders and the international community need to act early and consistently to support safe, credible elections in 2023. The enthusiasm of young Nigerians — who, in the face of Nigeria’s challenges, believe in the potential for positive, peaceful change — stands as an example of the pro-democratic values and initiative promoted by President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy last December. Nigerian leaders and the international community should be inspired to do everything they can to do justice to those young Nigerians’ aspirations.

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