High stakes in Nigeria's elections for impoverished citizenry — and US interests

Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, is scheduled to hold elections today amid uncertainty and tension. Originally set for Feb. 16, voting was postponed hours before it was to begin because of logistical problems and violence. Even now, there are genuine concerns about a credible outcome. As Nigeria’s strongest Western ally, the United States should put pressure on Nigeria’s politicians and government to ensure peaceful, free, fair elections that reflect the will of the people.

The two leading parties in Nigeria — the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — have accused each other of using the postponement to perfect plans for a massive rigging of elections. Nigerians are becoming used to election postponements; it happened in the last national elections. Indeed, then-U.S. Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryDemocrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal GOP senators press State Department for Hunter Biden, Burisma records Krystal Ball hits media over questions on Sanders's electability MORE visited Nigeria following that postponement to warn of dire consequences for politicians who would rig elections or foment post-election violence.

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Many Nigerians are hoping that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats warn State Dept against punishing individuals who testify in impeachment hearings Pompeo condemns 'deplorable' killings of Iraqi protesters MORE will play a more decisive role in this election. The stakes are high because of growing insecurity in the land.

According to John CampbellJohn Bayard Taylor CampbellHigh stakes in Nigeria's elections for impoverished citizenry — and US interests North Carolina county school board ends spanking policy General: 'Afghanistan is at an inflection point' MORE, former U.S ambassador to Nigeria, the United States needs to adjust its focus in Nigeria — and in Africa as a whole — from assisting with regional security to promoting democracy and governance. This requires prioritizing long-term planning over short-term emergency intervention.

The United States should promote a foreign policy in Nigeria that supports a vibrant civil society and maintains pressure on the government to fulfill its duties to the citizens. It is better to support the evolution of good governance in Nigeria than to fight terrorism that results from failed governance. One way to do this is to play a strong role in overseeing the elections and hold political leaders accountable for any resulting violence.

Supporting democratization and strengthening the institutional structures of Nigeria aligns with U.S. economic, political and security interests in Africa. Nigeria is the second-largest trading partner of the United States in Africa, and the 48th largest goods trading partner of the United States with $9.2 billion in total (two-way) goods trade during 2017.  

The African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), Congress has extended to 2025, offers even more opportunity for greater convergence and expansion of trade, services and cultural exchanges. Nigeria is the closest ally of the United States in Africa in the fight against religious extremism and global terrorism. In addition, more than 380,000 Nigerian immigrants have made America their home.

The sad reality in Nigeria today is that a corrupt, unpatriotic elite — military, ex-military men, and civilian and religious acolytes — has run Nigeria’s economy aground by siphoning and mismanaging Nigeria’s oil wealth. They have frustrated the hopes and aspirations of Nigerians through extractive, authoritarian leadership. According to London-based Chatham House, Nigeria loses about $1.5 billion every month to oil theft.

More than 70 percent of Nigerians suffer from grinding poverty, which causes widespread frustration and anger. Many Nigerians feel that President Muhammadu Buhari is insensitive to their suffering; his challenger, Atiku Abubakar, is weighed down with allegations of corruption in this past. Nigerians thus go into the presidential elections with difficult choices.

Sadly, this has been typical of Nigeria, where elections often make a mockery of democracy. The best candidates tend not to get on the ballot. In Nigeria, power belongs to a few elites — politicians usually kept afloat with national wealth through narrow appeal to their religious and ethnic bases. Political scientist Claude Ake argues that elections in Nigeria are “a metaphor for powerlessness and exploitation” of citizens.

Given this unfortunate scenario, Nigeria sorely needs the help of the international community — and especially the United States. The international community should not only monitor the elections in Nigeria but also hold the Nigerian political and religious elites accountable for the inexcusable suffering of Nigerians, most of whom never have had a taste of “the good life” despite the country’s abundant oil wealth.

Stan Chu Ilo is a research professor of African and Catholic studies at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, Depaul University. He is president of the Canadian Samaritans for Africa, which works with women in five African countries, and is the 2017 recipient of the AfroGlobal Impact Award. Follow him on Twitter @stanchuilo.