Saturday’s elections offer Nigerians opportunity to reaffirm democracy — at home and across Africa

On February 16, Nigerians will vote in elections that will be of great significance to their country and the continent of Africa. In addition to determining the political direction of the continent’s biggest economy, the elections will provide a benchmark of Nigeria’s democratic progress in the 20 years since the transition from military to civilian rule and, very likely, cause ripple effects for democracy across the region.

So far, all signs indicate that the Nigerian elections will be highly competitive, with a risk that escalating tensions and a history of electoral violence could be a major setback. But first, the good news: Since the last successful national elections in 2015, the number of registered political parties has increased dramatically and so has the number of citizen organizations advocating for peaceful and credible polls. Also, improvements to safeguarding the vote have made it harder for fraudsters to interfere in the electoral process. The acceptance of the results by then-president Goodluck Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) after the party had been in power for 16 years raised the confidence of Nigerians in democratic processes and bolstered hopes that the country had reached a new stage in its political transition.

It’s no coincidence that other countries in the region including Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia soon followed Nigeria’s example, holding successful elections that saw the peaceful transition of power between competing parties.  Nigeria’s democratic progress has given this regional powerhouse the moral high ground from which to take on a more active and credible role in promoting meaningful elections and good governance throughout the region.

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Nigeria was part of the team of mediators that resolved the 2014 crisis in Burkina Faso, in which former military strongman Blaise Compaore attempted to violate the constitution by seeking another term in office. Joined by the presidents of Ghana and Senegal, President Jonathan pressured the military to hand over power to a civilian transitional government and identified an interim leader to usher the country to Burkina Faso’s “freest, fairest, and most competitive elections.”

Nigeria also led the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) efforts to mediate a standoff in The Gambia, when the autocratic ruler Yahya Jammeh refused to accept the results of the December 2016 vote. Nigeria spearheaded, alongside Senegal, the deployment of multilateral military troops on standby while negotiations were held to convince Jammeh to relinquish power peacefully. That regional effort ultimately secured the peaceful democratic transition of power in The Gambia.

This kind of regional leadership — executed both by example and through strategic engagement and diplomacy — is exactly what Africa needs, as more Africans strive for greater freedom and life in democratic societies.

Many of the problems plaguing African countries such as South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe are rooted in poor governance, which begets systemic corruption, poverty, conflict and widespread insecurity. In contrast, in democratic countries such as Ghana, Botswana and Mauritius, economic opportunity has been unleashed, humanitarian and security crises have been lessened, and stability has increased. Successful democratic transformations in Africa not only create opportunities for the region; they also contribute to overall global prosperity, peace and security.

Nigeria’s continued positive leadership is contingent upon the health of its own democracy. That’s why it is crucial that the 2019 elections not undermine the democratic gains achieved in recent years. This isn’t just about what happens on Election Day; actions by various stakeholders in the pre-election period are also vital to keeping the temperature down and creating an enabling environment for free and fair elections.

This Feb. 16 election faces some challenges. The controversy and uproar over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria just three weeks before the elections raised concerns among many Nigerians about the independence of the judiciary and Electoral Tribunals, should the courts be called upon to adjudicate election disputes. 

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Additionally, while past elections have been negatively impacted by vote-buying, many Nigerians are appalled that political parties have become more brazen in their efforts to influence voters. In an attempt to curb this phenomenon, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) this month issued guidelines that include a ban on cellphones in the voting booth, a reform that was rolled out for the September gubernatorial election in Osun State and significantly reduced vote buying within polling units. However, domestic groups continue to report voter inducement in parts of Nigeria. They also are fearful that vote buying will only get worse between now and election day unless all electoral stakeholders, including INEC, the security services, political parties, and civil society take serious steps to deter the malpractice.

Insecurity also threatens to undermine the elections. Boko Haram remains active in the North-East, and in recent weeks ramped up attacks on the Nigerian military and unarmed villagers in Borno state. In the Middle Belt, herders versus farmer skirmishes persist, and in the South-East, a separatist group threatens to escalate tensions and prevent the Feb. 16 polls from holding in that area.

Nigerians are committed to minimizing the impact of these challenges ahead of Saturday’s vote. As they work hard to keep their country on the democratic path, they recognize that International support for a free and fair election process — including through independent observation missions — will raise awareness on the need for credible elections.  At this critical juncture in the trajectory of Nigerian democracy, the international community must stand with the Nigerian people in shaping their own destiny.

John Tomaszewski is the Regional Director for Africa at the International Republican Institute (IRI). Chris Fomunyoh is the Regional Director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute (NDI). IRI and NDI are fielding a joint election observation mission to monitor Nigeria’s upcoming elections.