Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP / Getty Images

Democracy is taking root in Nigeria

There is little appetite for military coups and rule by Big Men

March 23, 2015 2:00AM ET

Nigeria will hold its rescheduled presidential election on March 28. The poll was postponed last month amid growing instability in Nigeria’s northeastern region. Tension remains high ahead of the vote. As Nigerian army and African Union forces intensify the offensive against Boko Haram, the drumbeat for war is loud and clear. Vitriolic exchanges between the two major political parties in the Nigerian media suggest that the country is imploding.

Nigerians have good reason to be nervous about the outcome. The volatile political environment is reminiscent of the postelection violence that followed the annulment of the 1993 presidential election. Since its independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria fought a bloody civil war, endured bouts of dictatorship for 38 years, survived the collapse of its economy and only recently managed to restore democratic rule.

Yet, as troubled as the upcoming election has been, there are signs that Nigeria’s democracy is maturing. Information flow is at breakneck speed. The plurality of voices in the Nigerian media is emblematic of a country that enjoys freedom of expression — a rare commodity in many African countries. Though Nigeria’s democracy faces serious challenges, it also shows signs of resilience.

Electoral politics

Some of the public anxiety arises from the choices that Nigerians face: Re-electing President Goodluck Jonathan, who is widely perceived as weak, or handing power to Gen. Muhammad Buhari, a former military dictator who ousted a democratically elected government in 1983. Neither choice is good for Nigeria, but the nine other candidates in this election are invisible and unelectable; the Nigerian media does not even bother to cover them. By ignoring the dark horses who don’t have the resources to buy airtime, the media is not helping Nigerians make informed decisions. But the lack of equal publicity and coverage among the presidential candidates is hardly surprising. Journalists often follow front-runners, money and influence.

Both Jonathan and Buhari enjoy a level playing field to address their supporters. But instead of addressing the myriad of issues at stake, the two candidates prefer to spout platitudes and personal attacks. For example, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) appears fixated on Buhari’s allegedly forged high school diploma. Nigeria’s Constitution stipulates that presidential candidates must at least have a high school diploma or its equivalent. The demand for Buhari’s credential is legitimate. He can simply lay the allegation to rest by releasing his certificate.

For its part, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) continually downplays Jonathan’s achievements during his six-year tenure and emphasizes his weakness as commander-in-chief. That such open debates about a candidate’s health, competence and educational credentials are taking place in Nigeria is a sign of improved democratic ethos in a country still grappling with democratic norms.

A free, fair and peaceful poll and transition would earn Nigeria a deserved seat in the community of nations and further guarantee the country a strong voice among leading powers in the world.

For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the incumbent is crying foul over treatment from the opposition. It is unusual for the incumbent to complain about election fraud. In the past, the ruling party colluded with the electoral commission to win elections. For example, in the 1983 election, President Shehu Shagari’s now defunct National Party of Nigeria won the election by cheating at the polls. Similarly, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s PDP manipulated the electoral system to extend his grip on power in the face of sustained opposition.

The PDP is now accusing the opposition of manipulating that very system. That Jonathan’s campaign is alleging members of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), appointed by the incumbent administration, colluded with the opposition to manipulate the outcome in its favor signals that the commission is not beholden to the ruling party. Cheating in elections remains a scar in the democratic experiment of most African countries. But an incumbent crying foul about the opposition having an upper hand in influencing the electoral body is evidence that democracy is taking roots in Nigeria.

“Jega may have decided to aid the APC to rig the forthcoming elections through the manipulation of the production, distribution and collection of permanent voter’s cards,” Jonathan’s representative Femi Fani-Kayode said recently singling out INEC Chairman Attahiru Jega. “Emerging trends have consistently shown calculated attempts to deprive parts of the country that would traditionally vote for President Jonathan of their PVCs.”

Moreover, the PDP has also accused Jega of holding secret meetings with APC officials in Dubai. There is certainly cause for concern: Voters in regions under a state of emergency because of Boko Haram have received more voter’s cards than the relatively peaceful parts of the country. INEC’s independence is key to ensure fair and credible poll. Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, the reports risk tainting the credibility of the entire electoral system. INEC must now provide sufficient explanation as to how states where citizens have been displaced by Boko Haram’s insurgency appear more prepared to vote than those in the south or southeast of the country.

Obasanjo’s frustration

In yet another twist in the growth of Nigeria’s democracy, on Feb.15, Obasanjo abandoned the PDP at the 11th hour, publicly tearing up his membership card, to the consternation of his longtime supporters. The former president is not new to such display of eccentricity. In 1986 he snatched a microphone from then–Nigerian Television Authority reporter Segun Aderiye and broke it to protest a question. In 2009 he lost composure during an interview with the BBC’s “Hard Talk.”

Obasanjo’s latest dramatic act may appear indelicate, bizarre and ungrateful to a party that offered him the opportunity to lead the country twice. But his behavior demonstrates the growing frustration within the PDP rank and file over its resistance to democracy. Since its founding in 1998, the PDP has gradually drifted toward institutionalizing a civilian dictatorship in the name of democracy.

PDP membership used to be an automatic route to public office. Success in the party primaries was once a near guarantee for victory in general elections. But the days of PDP membership as a gateway to wealth and influence appear numbered. Besides Obasanjo, other PDP leaders, including the Speaker of the House Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, have abandoned the party and are now determined to make sure it loses in the coming polls. The exodus of prominent party members signals the PDP’s eventual demise. But Obasanjo’s exit may open the door for the much-needed reform in the PDP. Other parties may also learn from the PDP’s mistakes.

Taken together, these tea leaves indicate a democracy that is challenged but growing stronger. There is now less appetite for military coups and the rule by Big Men. Democracy might be messy, but Nigerians appear resolute that it is the best form of government for the multiethnic and multireligious nation. What happens after the elections will likely test the limits of Nigeria’s electoral democracy. It may be difficult to predict how the 2015 elections will affect Nigeria. But a free, fair and peaceful poll and transition would earn Nigeria a deserved seat in the community of nations and further guarantee the country a strong voice among leading powers in the world.

Uchenna Ekwo is the president of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives, a New York–based media and policy think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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