Nigeria’s disputed election 12 days ago is raising protest at home and concern abroad over its implications for the strength of democracy in that country and across Africa. Yesterday’s new wrinkle was the postponement of this week’s planned election for Nigerian state governors. Nigeria’s electoral commission is working to fix problems in a vote management system that failed to transparently process and report a result on February 25. An erosion of democracy’s credibility in Africa’s most populous nation would be catastrophic. Nigeria’s allies should support the remediation efforts by Nigerians that so far have largely avoided violence by working through the courts.

Nigerians in Lagos cheer and snap photos at a February rally for presidential candidate Peter Obi in a three-way race. Obi and rival candidate Atiku Abubakar are challenging the election’s declared outcome in court. (Taiwo Aina/The New York Times)
Nigerians in Lagos cheer and snap photos at a February rally for presidential candidate Peter Obi in a three-way race. Obi and rival candidate Atiku Abubakar are challenging the election’s declared outcome in court. (Taiwo Aina/The New York Times)

Elections have never been simple in a massive nation, forged through colonial violence, that sprawls from ocean to savannah, across hundreds of ethnic and language communities. Still, Nigerians in this century overcame prior decades of military rule to build a working, if turbulent, democracy marked by regular elections — including seven for president — and legal transfers of power. And they show determination to improve it. The past year has seen a high-energy, pro-democracy campaign, notably by young Nigerians, for more transparent elections and more responsive governance.

That pro-democracy energy has shifted Nigeria’s electoral landscape, and the full implications of that remain unclear. After decades in which two main parties dominated national politics, youthful demands for greater representation, a halt to corruption and better governance helped fuel a vibrant third-party candidacy — that of former governor Peter Obi. This election also broke the mold for Nigerian parties’ efforts to show balance between a mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south. The two main parties dropped their traditional practice of “ticket balancing,” igniting a national debate over the country’s need to broaden political inclusion to include marginalized communities, women and youth.

The changes included an opportunity on February 25 for a more transparent vote. Nigeria’s national electoral authority promised faster, more visible tabulation of results through a new, high-tech election management system. But the plan misfired, with many polling places opening late, remaining closed or lacking supplies to process votes. Nigerian and international analysts say the opening to strengthen the credibility of elections has been missed so far — and that the political legitimacy of the outcome risks being diluted. The Independent National Electoral Commission yesterday postponed Saturday’s scheduled elections for governors of most of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Risks for Nigeria

“The Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, underperformed on election day and it missed an opportunity to strengthen the country’s electoral system and improve public trust in the country’s elections,” said Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa who co-led the joint election observers’ team from the twin pro-democracy institutes of the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties.

Carson, a USIP advisor on Africa, noted that the election was more competitive in some ways than prior ones. In the presidential race, each of the three main candidates won 12 states each. “Strikingly, seven sitting governors who were running for the Senate failed to win their races,” said Carson, “and that seemed to show a strong ability of electors to work against the power of incumbency, and to choose candidates who seemed to them to offer democratic benefits.”

Yet if those features suggested a democratic fervor, the number of votes cast and counted is an alarm signal, Carson and other analysts say. While voter drives last year increased registration to 93.4 million, only 24.9 million votes, about 27 percent of registrants, were counted on election day — a third consecutive decline of participation in presidential votes. Four years ago, President Muhammadu Buhari won election with about 15 million votes. The declared winner this time, Bola Tinubu of Buhari’s All-Progressives Conference, received 9 million votes to govern a nation of 220 million people.

Implications in Africa

Despite the flaws in Nigeria’s presidential election, the country remains a democracy committed to following constitutional norms, Carson noted. President Buhari respected the country’s presidential term limits, a step that democracy advocates hope might strengthen that practice as a norm. Opinion research, for example, by the independent group Afrobarometer, has shown that Africans strongly support term limits as part of democratic systems. Still, analysts have counted at least 13 cases since 2015 in which leaders forced constitutional changes or otherwise manipulated their way to remaining in power beyond term limits. That has weakened their governments’ legitimacy. In some cases, as in Guinea, it has led to military coups.

So, despite the turmoil of the moment, “Nigeria’s foundational commitment to democracy may serve as an example to other political leaders in West Africa to strengthen their own democracies or fight to restore democracy in countries where it has failed,” Carson said. Nigeria’s government and its vibrant pro-democracy, civil society movements are also in a strong position to advocate democratic, constitutional rule in other West African states and to work strategically to reverse democratic backsliding and coups. 

Africa’s desire for democratic governance remains strong. Afrobarometer, which is Africa’s leading public opinion research organization, reports that nearly 70 percent of Africans want multiparty democratic government. The majority of Africans do not see value in authoritarian or military regimes.

What Meaning for Policies?

“A centerpiece of American policy in Africa should be the promotion of democracy, rule of law and good governance,” Carson said. This means focusing on supporting civil society groups that promote democratic norms and working with governments to strengthen their democratic institutions, notably their judicial and legislative bodies, he said.

And there is this: Africans do not seek, and Americans do not support, democracy simply for its own sake. They and we do so because we all have learned over the centuries that democracy is the form of government that can best respond to the needs of the citizenry. So African and allied policymaking should support not simply transparent elections, but accountable governance that is improved through elections. Governments’ accountability and responsiveness — the solving of problems and the improvement of lives and the building of sustainable peace — is the ultimate goal.

Nowhere on earth is that goal more vital than Africa. By 2050, Africa will be where most of the world’s population growth takes place. The continent will by then form fully a quarter of humanity to become a geostrategic partner like never before in our history. Nigeria will be at the center of that rise, shaping much of Africa’s — and our — future with the quality of its democracy.

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