Nigerians made history last week as ordinary citizens turned out in their tens of millions to cast ballots in what was not only the most competitive presidential race many had ever witnessed, but, arguably, the election with the highest stakes, given the security challenges and economic pressures buffeting Africa's most-populous country and its biggest economy. And, even more significantly, their votes counted.
For the first time since achieving independence in 1960, Nigerians voted out an incumbent head of state and, perhaps just as important if not more so, President Goodluck Jonathan promptly conceded to his challenger, retired Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Had the election results been closer, as many observers thought they might be, some of the those in Jonathan's People's Democratic Party, which has held power since Nigeria's transition back to civilian rule in 1999, might have been tempted to tinker with the tallies and the consequences in that tense environment would have been terrible, with violence and civil conflict very real possibilities. Instead, the smooth transition that Jonathan promised Buhari in a telephone call made last Monday even before the final returns were announced by the electoral commission represents not only a critical milestone for Nigeria, but a powerful boost for democracy across Africa, one which the United States and other countries would do well to support.
Nearly two dozen African countries are supposed to hold elections over the course of the next 18 months. While none of these countries is a match for Nigeria in terms of sheer political and economic heft — alone, the West African giant is home to almost one in four sub-Saharan Africans and accounts for one-third of the region's gross domestic product — the Democratic Republic of the Congo probably comes closest with a population of more than 77 million people spread across the 11th largest territory in the world, one endowed with immense mineral reserves, currently valued by some estimates at more than $24 trillion. Regrettably, there are no signs that the current ruler of this vast domain, Joseph Kabila, in power since he inherited the presidency from his assassinated warlord father in 2001 at the ripe old age of 29, has any inclination to be the statesman that Nigeria's Jonathan proved to be at the decisive moment. In fact, the last time Kabila fils faced Congolese voters in 2011, the poll results were criticized by international monitors from the European Union and the Carter Center and denounced as "treachery, lies, and terror" by the country's Roman Catholic bishops, who demanded that they be annulled. Now facing a strict limit of two consecutive terms that the constitution explicitly prohibits amending, Kabila is systematically narrowing the political space and ruthlessly dealing with any opposition, however innocuous: not only were at least three dozen people, mostly unarmed students, killed two months ago during protests against a proposal to delay elections, but just last month the regime went so far as to arrest a U.S. diplomat along with other participants at a press conference organized for visiting African pro-democracy activists (the diplomat was released after a few hours; others were not so lucky). Although President Obama should be applauded for reaching out to Kabila in the wake of the triumph for democracy in Nigeria, calling the Congolese ruler to encourage him to make free and fair elections and a transition next year his legacy, it seems more than a bit fanciful to expect so much. More likely, Kabila will try to peddle the hackneyed irony of dictators: To preserve peace and stability so elections can take place, he must delay the elections for now.
Variants of that line are already being tested by a number of incumbents across Africa. For example, in Guinea, another country with extraordinary wealth potential thanks to its prodigious natural resources (including the largest bauxite reserves in the world), but precious little development to show for it, incumbent President Alpha Condé has few achievements to point to in making the case for a second and final term in elections scheduled for October. In fact, both urban and rural poverty rates are higher now than they were under the dictators before him. So, in a rather cynical move, the president recently invoked the fight against the Ebola virus (the epidemic began in Guinea) to justify putting an army general in charge of the interior ministry that is also responsible for supporting the electoral commission, which then postponed, yet again, long-overdue local elections — thus conveniently leaving in place the unelected appointees of the incumbent head of state to administer the presidential poll he will be running in. And things may be heating up: Over this past weekend, opposition spokesman Aboubacar Sylla, who had recently been subject to a campaign of vilification by pro-regime media, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by two unknown assailants.
Other incumbents concede even less space for noisome critics. The ruler of another resource-rich but underdeveloped country, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since ousting and killing his uncle Francisco in 1979, is guaranteed "reelection" when his current seven-year term expires next year. Official results awarded him more than 95 percent of the vote the last time around in 2009, down slightly from the 97.1 percent and the 97.8 percent he supposedly won in 2002 and 1996, respectively, as well as the 99 percent he claimed the first time the benighted citizens of the country were permitted go through the motions of casting their ballots for him in 1989. Obviously, even the fractional slippage is intolerable: Last week, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over recent arrests and extrajudicial restrictions slapped on the handful of opposition leaders still in the country.
Despite the occasional attention given by instances like Obama's call to the younger Kabila or last month's House subcommittee hearing on U.S. support for elections in Africa, Washington needs to do more to advance democratic governance on a continent that the administration itself has described as "more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular." Unfortunately, amid an overall decline across the whole of government for democracy support, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimates that U.S. Agency for International Development funding for democracy assistance in Africa has declined 43 percent since 2009.
It is too early to say how things will unfold in Nigeria. President-elect Buhari has his work cut out for him. Not only will the former military man have to finish up the battle with Boko Haram — in what must have been a bittersweet triumph for the outgoing administration, which was much criticized for its handling of the war, the Islamist militants' headquarters fells to government forces the day before the presidential vote — but he will have to both consolidate the counterinsurgency gains by a combination of political, economic and social development programs for the long-marginalized northeast and shift resources to confront the militants' tactical pivot to increased terrorist attacks. Furthermore, as attacks in the oil-rich Niger Delta over the weekend underscore, violence can quickly crop up elsewhere. Moreover, the new president faces high expectations from the voters who elected him in part because of their dissatisfaction over the pace of improvements despite the efforts the Jonathan administration made to revive agriculture and fix infrastructure. And he has to do all this with the much-diminished resources available since global oil prices collapsed (despite the heroic efforts of Coordinating Minister for the Economy Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to increase non-oil revenue, hydrocarbons still account for more than 80 percent of the Nigerian government's budget).
Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate in the fact that Nigerians decided their own future in a free and fair election and that both winner and loser were not only correct, but indeed gracious, in their behavior. Africa as whole will be better off if the citizens of other countries are given the same opportunity that their Nigerian brothers and sisters had.
Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.