Nigerian Democracy Grows Up

ABUJA – Nigeria ’s legislative elections, to be followed by a presidential poll on April 16, indicate that the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) has lost its near-total grip on the country’s politics. Of the four main opposition parties that fielded candidates for the 469 parliamentary seats in contention, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) took the bulk of the votes in the southwest of the country, felling such PDP stalwarts as House speaker Dimeji Bankole and Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, daughter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

The PDP did, however, fend off challenge in the oil-producing Niger Delta, President Goodluck Jonathan’s home region. It also held its own in the predominantly Igbo southeast and the middle belt, home to several small ethnic groups.

Bitter controversy marked Jonathan’s ascension to power in May 2010, following the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua after only three years in office. Some PDP politicians in the Muslim north insisted that their region be allowed to present a candidate, as Obasanjo, who was viewed as representing the Christian south, had served eight years. They were rebuffed.

The party then hemorrhaged influential members, particularly in the north. Analysts predicted that a large share of the region’s votes would go to the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), led by Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim from the state of Katsina. Buhari is also the party’s presidential candidate. The CPC won the majority of the seats in Katsina, but the PDP still managed to maintain its dominance of that volatile region’s politics.

The parliamentary polls, originally scheduled for April 2 but postponed a week after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) failed to print adequate ballot papers and other election materials, took place in an atmosphere of fear, violence, and uncertainty. Bombs went off in the INEC office in Suleja, near the federal capital, on the eve of the polling, killing several election officials. Explosions in Maiduguri , a large city in the northeast where Boko Haram, a violent Muslim sect, remains a threatening presence despite a 2009 government crackdown, forced many voters to stay home. Seventy-four million Nigerians were registered to vote, but turnout was far below that.

Attahiru Jega, a university teacher and chairman of the INEC from August 2010, overhauled a sclerotic and corrupt election machinery, put in place a new and credible voting register, and retrained and deployed his staff to 120,000 polling stations in a vast country – all in six months. The election was always going to be a challenge, all the more so because, following the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerian politicians had become habituated to rigging polls. After all, the 2007 election that brought Yar’Adua to power – the PDP’s third straight “victory” – was judged by local and international observers to be the worst in the country’s history.

Indeed, prior to the vote earlier this month, Nigeria had settled into a rut of “electoral authoritarianism.” The all-powerful PDP, relying on its control of the security agencies, the considerable oil revenues to which the president and his retinue had untrammeled access, and an intricate patronage network radiating through the local councils of Nigeria ’s 36 states, seemed set to govern indefinitely. Elections had become a hollow ritual, matters of public policy were not important campaign issues, and the opposition was divided, poorly funded, and unable to devise a strategy to cut the PDP juggernaut to size.

To President Jonathan’s credit, he delivered clean elections. As the INEC proceeded to implement an elaborate device to check potential vote riggers, he stood his ground and backed Jega, even as hawks within his party began to mutter that Jega was a “dangerous radical” whom the president should sack. Opposition parties found their feet, and the PDP’s power monopoly was finally broken – but not obliterated.

In fact, Jonathan and the PDP look set to turn in a good performance in the presidential polls. The CPC’s poor showing in the North’s parliamentary polls could be an indication that the region’s influential conservative politicians, whom Buhari took on when, as an army general, he toppled the Second Republic in a bloodless coup in December 1983, have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Talks are ongoing between the CPC, the ACN, which is fielding Nuhu Ribadu, the former anti-corruption czar as presidential candidate, and the All Nigeria Peoples Party, a minor party running Ibrahim Shekarau as its nominee, to field a joint candidate.

Buhari has more name recognition nationwide than the other two, but Ribadu’s ACN outperformed the CPC during in the parliamentary election. So who will step aside for whom remains unclear. If, however, the opposition parties resolve their differences and manage to stitch together a firm common platform, they could force Jonathan into a runoff.

That the elections were held at all – and without violent conflict between the country’s north and south – is a remarkable achievement. The country’s mounting problems – rampant official corruption, decaying social and physical infrastructure, and growing ethnic and religious insurgencies in the northeast, central region, the southeast, and Niger Delta – are yet to be seriously tackled.

Nevertheless, ordinary Nigerians hope that the presidential election this week, and governorship and state-assembly polls on April 26, will put into office politicians who will, at long last, take on these challenges. As the parliamentary elections showed, it is time that Nigerians receive democracy’s dividend: a government that reflects their interests and responds to their demands.

Ike Okonta, an Abuja-based policy analyst and writer, is currently a fellow of the Open Society Institute, New York .

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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