Three Cheers for Nigeria
April 1, 2015
With the electoral victory of opposition leader General Muhammadu Buhari and a gracious concession speech by incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria has confounded the country’s critics and doomsayers and taken a giant step forward in consolidating democratic progress since the return to civilian rule in 1999. Western media and policy pundits have portrayed Nigeria as a near-failed state, confronted with miserable choices and a failing economy, humiliated by having to work with neighboring states to defeat Boko Haram, and led by a president who would cling to power at all costs. The 2015 presidential elections should be a source of pride and celebration for Nigerians of all political leanings because of what the peaceful transfer of power from one party to the other says about Nigeria’s political maturation. But, equally important, they should serve as a happy rebuke to those who would choose to see in the country only the worst possible outcomes. There is no question that the country faces big challenges—in security, in governance, in eliminating corruption, and building bridges in a country fraught with regional, ethnic, and religious divisions. But without downplaying the very real challenges, it is worth cheering the successes.
First, a cheer for the electoral process, which, although still imperfect, has improved considerably since the shambolic exercises of 2003 and 2007. Professor Attahiru Jega, chair of the Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission, deserves a great deal of credit for the improvements of 2011 and 2015. His unflappable demeanor, his openness to criticism and advice, and the innovations he introduced to improve electoral transparency and integrity, have done a great deal to improve the credibility of the elections and of the institution he leads. A wholesale scrubbing of the voter registry, the introduction of a two-step accreditation and voting process and the use of permanent voter cards and electronic card readers generated some controversy, and Election Day was not without significant logistical and technical challenges. But these moves have gone a long way toward eliminating some of the biggest opportunities for ballot rigging and have set a much higher bar for subsequent elections. Nigerian voters, who in some cases waited at polling stations for up to 10 hours to vote, were the election’s MVPs (see Nigerians Have Voted: Will Political Leaders Listen?), and civil society, which has applied increasingly sophisticated technologies and innovative approaches to voter education, peace messaging, and monitoring the integrity of the process through initiatives like the Transition Monitoring Group’s Quick Count and the Situation Room, was critically important as well.
Second, a cheer for outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, who promised to step down if defeated and was true to his word. Before the final announcement of results, President Jonathan called General Buhari to offer congratulations and gave a concession speech in which he urged followers who might feel aggrieved by process or result to seek redress through the mechanisms set forth in the constitution and electoral laws. Jonathan’s prompt and gracious concession, a rarity in Africa, is a tremendously important precedent and example, for Nigeria and for the many African countries that will be holding elections in the coming year. Despite his many detractors, the president has a number of important accomplishments he can point to: much stronger macroeconomic management under the leadership of Finance Minister Ngozi Ikonjo-Iweala; reforms in the banking, agriculture, and power sectors; road, rail, and port development—all of which will be critical to broad-based private-sector-led growth and economic diversification over the long term. The government’s latest push against Boko Haram was too long in coming, but has had some important successes in bringing territory back under government control and opening space for a more comprehensive strategy that his successor will urgently need to undertake.
Finally, a cheer for the incoming president, General Muhammadu Buhari. He will need it as he builds a team and lays out a plan to tackle the big challenges that lie ahead for the country. The new government will need quickly to operationalize its campaign promises of eliminating corruption, defeating Boko Haram, and creating jobs for Nigeria’s burgeoning and youthful population. Perhaps the greatest task will be to set a tone and example that encourages all Nigerians to overcome the deepening divides within Nigerian society that fall along regional, ethnic, and religious lines, and that have been exacerbated by the bruising election campaign. The 2015 elections will not fix these problems, but they are an indication of how Nigeria can defy expectations.
Jennifer Cooke is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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