Africa Briefing N°79 24 Feb 2011, crisisgroup
The April 2011 general elections – if credible and peaceful – would reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, yield more representative and legitimate institutions and restore faith in a democratic trajectory. Anything similar to the 2007 sham, however, could deepen the vulnerability of West Africa’s largest country to conflict, further alienate citizens from the political elite and reinforce violent groups’ narratives of bad governance and exclusion. Flawed polls, especially if politicians stoke ethnic or religious divides, may ignite already straining fault lines, as losers protest results. Despite encouraging electoral preparations, serious obstacles remain. Many politicians still seem determined to use violence, bribery or rigging to win the spoils of office. In the remaining weeks, national institutions, led by the Independent National Election Commission (INEC), should redouble efforts to secure the poll’s integrity, tackle impunity for electoral crimes, increase transparency and bolster safeguards, including by publicising results polling station by polling station and rejecting bogus returns.
With Laurent Gbagbo’s attempt to defy democracy in Côte d’Ivoire casting a shadow throughout the continent, the elections will resonate, for good or ill, well beyond national borders. Nigeria’s prestige and capacity to contribute to international peace and stability are at stake. The reputation of President Goodluck Jonathan, the generally favoured incumbent, is at stake too. He took a tough stance for respecting election results in Côte d’Ivoire, and his promise to respect rules for these polls contrasts starkly with former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s “do or die” language in 2007. Jonathan’s victory in an orderly (at least in Abuja) People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primary and subsequent wooing of northern powerbrokers seem thus far to have averted dangerous north-south splits within the ruling party. He appointed a respected academic and civil society activist, Professor Attahiru Jega, to chair the INEC and seems inclined to respect its autonomy, including by providing timely funding for elections. Jega’s leadership offers some protection against the wholesale manipulation of results that blighted previous polls.
But huge challenges remain. Jega carries the expectations of the nation, but – as he emphasises – is no magician. He assumed office only in June 2010 and has juggled much needed reforms against the imperative of actually holding elections in 2011. He inherited an organisation complicit in the 2007 fraud, exposed to manipulation outside the capital and over which the new Electoral Act denies him full control. To his – and the nation’s – credit, a gamble to conduct a risky voter registration exercise seems to have paid off, but its shaky start was a reminder of challenges, even in simply delivering materials around the vast country in a timely manner.
Underlying causes of electoral flaws, however, run deeper than election administration. Stakes are high: the state is the principle means of generating wealth; vast oil revenues are accessed through public office. Extreme poverty makes voters vulnerable to bribes and intimidation. The election takes place against an upsurge in violence, including attacks in Borno, communal violence in Jos and explosions in Abuja and elsewhere. Politicians and their sponsors habitually exploit violent groups and social divisions to win elections, so many Nigerians perceive that upsurge as linked to April’s polls. A number of incumbent governors face bruising contests, and the threat of bloodshed hangs over many states. Security is crucial to electoral integrity, but security forces have traditionally done little to prevent rigging or violence and have often been bought by politicians and complicit. Lower-level courts are often corrupt, impunity is insidious and the rule of law at best weak. No one has been convicted of an electoral offence since independence.
Elections, therefore, traditionally offer Nigerian politicians a choice: respect the rules and risk losing to an opponent who does not; or avoid the political wilderness by rigging or violence, knowing that to do so is easy, and you are unlikely to be punished. Shifting these incentives is essential to holding better elections. Tackling underlying issues – unchecked executives, frail institutions, rampant impunity and inequitable distribution of power and resources – requires reforms of a scope not feasible by April. But by bolstering safeguards, rigorous planning, ensuring better security, acting against bogus results and beginning to convict electoral offenders, INEC and other institutions can at least make cheating less attractive.
Further recommendations are given throughout this briefing, but the following are priorities:
The bar for these elections seems set at “better than 2007”. That may be realistic, given Jega’s late arrival, the INEC’s internal constraints, the stakes of office, entrenched patterns of rigging and violence and fragile rule of law. But such a modest standard – well below Nigeria’s own regional and international commitments for democratic elections – should not disguise that the choices of elites, not an innate Nigerian resistance to democracy, drive shoddy polls. If the country’s politicians want to meet their citizens’ increasingly desperate aspirations for a free and fair vote, nothing stops them from doing so.
Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 24 February 2011