Nigerian political transition sets model for other African elections

On May 29, Nigeria will experience, for the first time in its history, a peaceful transfer of power between two political parties. Since 1999, when the then-government of Nigeria allowed new political parties to form, Nigeria has been governed by one party, the People's Democratic Party. In March, Gen. Muhamadu Buhari, the candidate of the opposing coalition party, All Progressives Congress, succeeded in winning the presidential election, marking a critical juncture in the democratic transition timeline of this African country.

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Both incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his main rival, President-elect Buhari, have been committed in their management of the transition process, charting unfamiliar territory in the Nigerian political landscape and setting a solid precedent for their African neighbors on how opposing political parties can peacefully transfer power. Nigerians have shown to the world that such a transition is possible on a continent that is more familiar with "presidents for life."

The organization I represent, the International Republican Institute (IRI), was honored to be present for these historic elections. IRI, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), which form a consortium of partners working on democracy and governance issues, often work together in countries in transition around the globe. In Nigeria, the three organizations were proud to partner with Nigerian political stakeholders and civil society organizations in the months and even years leading to this historic event. Our work together demonstrates the important contributions that can be made to support those participants in democratic transitions who are truly committed to an open, honest process. The partnership between IRI, NDI and IFES and our long-term presence in Nigeria — working alongside both political parties and civil society since 1998 — underscores how small, but impactful U.S. taxpayer-funded programs can contribute to strengthening the democratic process in Nigeria and countries around the globe.

For example, one key area that the consortium partners worked together on in advance of the 2015 Nigerian elections was support to electoral reform in the country. The consortium partners worked closely with the Nigerian electoral commission during the 2011 election cycle to raise awareness of the need for proper financial management and to gather perspectives on what constitutes legal and proper means for parties to generate income. During the 2015 election cycle, Nigeria's election commission took up the mantle to raise awareness among political parties about Nigeria's legal framework and guidelines governing campaign finance. And while there is still much progress to be made in terms of compliance and tracking and prosecuting violations, Nigeria's election commission took an important first step by highlighting this and undertaking many other electoral reforms.

The consortium partners were active in ensuring that all citizens of Nigeria had an opportunity to participate in these elections, particularly persons with disabilities. IFES, IRI and NDI cooperated on efforts to work with the election commission and organizations representing persons with disabilities to make sure sight-impaired and hearing-impaired individuals had the information they needed to actively participate in the voting process. IRI developed and translated the Independent National Electoral Commission's (INEC) frequently asked questions (FAQs) into a sign language video, while IFES shared worldwide best practices for accessible elections with election commissioners at the state level in Nigeria. In addition, NDI participated in visits to INEC on behalf of persons with disabilities to advocate for full inclusion. Finally, IRI and NDI developed checklists so that international monitors could track the inclusion of persons with disabilities in an effort to provide recommendations to improve future elections.

Another significant area of cooperation between the consortium partners included work with youth groups to promote peace messaging in advance of the elections, to help prevent the type of violence that marred the 2011 elections when more than 800 people died in election-related violence.

U.S. government assistance played an important role at both the grassroots and national level in Nigeria, and the three organizations were proud to work with our Nigerian partners on these efforts. Here in the nation's capital, private-sector assistance also played an important role in highlighting key issues to the policy community. The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a number of Nigerian political leaders and civil society representatives in a series of public forums in the year leading to the elections in order to raise awareness of the important issues surrounding the Nigerian elections, and, most importantly, the consequences for not only Nigerian citizens but for the U.S. and the rest of Africa if these elections had failed.

What Nigerians achieved for their country is an exemplary model for the rest of Africa. And not only the recent Nigerian elections but peaceful transfers of powers in places like Zambia and Ghana should inspire others to follow suit. Some two dozen countries have presidential elections in Africa between now and 2017. The temptation to stay in power can be great, but when incumbent presidents try to change the rules of the game in their favor by changing term limits or restricting political space, the consequences can be deadly. The world saw that last year in Burkina Faso, this January in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now in Burundi. Young people in particular are increasingly comfortable going to the streets to demand change, and more often than not these protests turn violent.

Recognizing that there are always trade-offs when making funding decisions, and yet through IRI's decades of work in Nigeria and the remarkable electoral process that surpassed expectations there, the consortium partners know what can be accomplished with relatively few resources. Working closely with Nigerian partners, U.S. government-sponsored and private-sector programs made important contributions to the electoral process in Nigeria.

The African continent is home to more than 1 billion people, two-thirds of whom are young men and women under the age of 25, millions of whom are unemployed or underemployed. At a time when such groups as Boko Haram, al Shabab, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are menacing the African landscape, this new generation has to better understand and experience the dividends of democracy or we face the terrible prospect of more violent and deadly protests or other more nefarious groups capturing their allegiance. Now is the time to demonstrate to the next generation of Africans what a peaceful political transition could like in their own country.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of congress representing Wisconsin's 8th District.