A Failure of Democracy in Nigeria

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Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters

A Nigerian election official uses stones to hold down ballots during vote counting at a polling station in Lagos, Nigeria, April 21, 2007.

Nigeria's presidential election was billed as the first civilian transfer of power since independence in 1960. That much was achieved with Monday's declaration that Umaru Yar'Adua will be the country's next President — ostensibly by a landslide 24.6 million votes to 6.6 million for his nearest rival. But it remains doubtful that this particular civilian transfer of power will end the political turmoil that has accompanied the election campaign.

"These elections have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people and the process cannot be considered to have been credible," said Max van den Berg, chief election monitor for the European Union. A local alliance of civil society observers called for the cancellation of Sunday's vote. "The election was a charade," they declared. "A democratic arrangement founded on such fraud can have no legitimacy." Even outgoing President Olesegun Obasanjo, who nominated Yar'Adua as his successor, admitted: "Our elections could not have been said to have been perfect."

The election's problems weren't confined to the validity of the vote — although evidence abounded of blatant rigging. Ballot stuffing was widespread, millions of voters were unable to vote because of a shortage of ballot papers, and on the eve of the vote, an army truck was stopped and found to be carrying thousands of ballot papers completed even before the polls had opened.

More damaging, perhaps, is the question it raises about the democratic credentials of President Obasanjo, a key ally of U.S. in Africa and whose country is considered a linchpin of regional security and supplies 14% of U.S. oil imports. When he won his second term in 2003, the former military dictator was also accused of massive vote-rigging. Six months ago, the 69-year-old Obasanjo tried to rewrite the constitution to allow himself a third term as President. When that failed, he nominated Yar'Adua, 56 — until then a nonentity — as his People's Democratic Party candidate, and unleashed anti-corruption investigators on his rivals. A handover of power from a strongman to his puppet in a rigged election is hardly conducive to democratic legitimacy, or stability.

Sunday's election may be a grim portent for the prospects of good governance in the region: At 132 million people, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and its oil wealth and military power make it, together with South Africa, the continent's major political player. But since independence, Nigeria has set an example for corruption unrivaled in Africa. The country's own anti-corruption watchdog estimates that successive Nigerian rulers have stolen a total of $400 billion since independence — the equivalent of the total economic aid sent by the international community to the entire African continent in the same period. Nigeria's governments have made the country a byword for corruption — a reputation not improved by Monday's result.

Still, Nigeria's track record of corruption and political patronage may, ironically, spare it from spiraling into a cataclysm of violence. The run-up to the vote was marked by an attack on a police station by Islamist militants in the north and an attempt to blow up the election commission headquarters with a petrol tanker. And in violence directly related to the electoral contest, a total of 65 people were killed. Now, opposition candidates have rejected the vote and may call their supporters onto the streets. That augurs badly for peace, as do threats by militants operating in the oil fields in the Niger Delta region to bring the country to its knees unless they are given a fairer split of oil revenues.

But most Nigerians have long since been resigned to the dishonesty of their rulers. That's why millions did not bother to vote last Saturday. Nigeria's presidential election did not signify democratic progress. But the apathy shown by many Nigerians and the long-standing tradition of the country's rulers to simply buy off powerful opponents with a share of the spoils may actually help the country avert a violent political showdown.