This is a guest post by Russell Hanks, now retired from the State Department, who is a long-time observer of the Nigerian political scene. The views expressed are entirely his own.
Nigeria’s election, originally scheduled for last month, is set to take place this weekend. This is the first open election in the nation since 1980, one in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion.
The Independent Nigerian Election Commission (INEC) has undertaken reforms that could enhance both security at the polls and confidence in the election’s results. Since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigeria’s elections have been less than effective. In 1999, a fait accompli was imposed, giving General Olusegun Obasanjo the presidency as a reaction to the northern military domination. In 2003, Obasanjo was re-elected in an election fraught with massive manipulation of the results. In 2007, after Obasanjo’s third-term hopes were frustrated, it is unclear whether INEC’s production could even be termed an election. Given these low barriers, the 2011 election was termed “the best election since military rule” although announced results point to continued massive rigging.
If INEC’s reforms prove sufficient, the worst outcome would be an inconclusive result rather than a pre-ordained victor. The complicated formula for electing a president, including a minimum percentage of votes from a number of states, increases the possibility of uncertain results.
Politically, though, other dangers are more critical. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, and the challenger, Muhammadu Buhari, are locked in a battle that, on the surface, pits Jonathan’s “business-as-usual” approach against Buhari’s perennial “anti-corruption crusade.” The voters, fed up with corruption and ineffective government, seem to be more supportive of Buhari’s current campaign than in previous contests. But a number of Buhari’s current alliances complicate his ability to pursue his “security” and “anti-corruption” agendas. As the political landscape has shifted since the post-military, Obasanjo presidency, many of those who profited during Obasanjo’s tenure moved into the Buhari camp. Their influence could limit his efforts to end corruption and hold past offenders accountable.
And while, as a leader, Buhari seems positioned to deal with the threat of Boko Haram, it is unclear whether the Nigerian military is up to the task. Decades of corruption and political manipulation of the command structure bring into question its capabilities, and habitual Nigerian xenophobia limits cooperation and support from the United States and Europe.
Still, this election could improve the overall electoral performance and might present some hope to Nigeria’s polity. If the manipulation of the south-south minorities and the marginalization of the Igbos is limited, Nigeria’s democratic path to the future could be cleared.
The biggest danger to Nigeria, though, would come from a Buhari victory followed by a continuation of historical practices, such as blatant corruption. In that case, the voters’ hopes would be dashed and the reputation of democracy in Nigeria would be irreparably tarnished, threatening the nation’s commitment to democracy and reform.