In 1999 Nigerians did something remarkable: they elected a President. After 16 years of military rule and four decades of political and economic failure, Africa’s most populous country held a free election. “Globally, things are going democratically,” a Lagos slum dweller told the New York Times. “We want to join the globe.”
It was a good time to get on board. The percentage of democracies in the world had doubled since the 1970s, to more than 60%. Many of the remaining autocracies — pariah states like North Korea, Burma and Iran — seemed to be living on borrowed time. In ideological terms, as Francis Fukuyama famously declared, history was ending — and Nigeria didn’t want to be left behind.
That was then. But when Nigerians went to the polls again last month, democracy lost. In an orgy of ballot-box stuffing and violence, punctuated by an attempted truck bombing of the electoral-commission headquarters, the ruling party won what some observers thought was the most fraudulent election ever in Nigeria — which is saying something. Once again, Nigeria is catching a wave. From Bangladesh to Thailand to Russia, political freedom is in retreat. In a book due out this fall, Hoover Institution political scientist Larry Diamond notes that “we have entered a period of global democratic recession.”