Apr 15, 2011

Nigeria’s Elections: Another Sham or a Victory for Democracy?

Mixed feelings dominate during elections that could change the future of Nigeria’s many ethnic groups

That Alojz Peterle, the European Union’s chief election observer, spoke about a “...generally peaceful atmosphere”, when talking about an election that left hundreds of people dead, is saying something about the situation in Nigeria. Elections in Africa’s most populous country tend to be stained by violence and rampant fraud, hitting ethnic minorities with little power, such as the Ogoni, particularly hard. The parliamentary elections on 9 April 2011, which will be followed by presidential elections on 16 April and elections for the 36 federal states on 26 April, showed some signs of improvement compared to earlier voting rounds. However, the continued violence demonstrates that Nigeria has a long way to go before it will be truly a democratic state where the rule of law is respected.

Nobody expected this election in a poor country of 150 million with 250 ethnic groups to be flawless. Nonetheless, for everyone hoping that the Nigerian elections would be fair, the last-minute postponement by a week was a set-back. While the government argued that logistical problems were the reason, opposition groups suspected more sinister motives. This however seems only a small setback compared to other problems. The Economist noted on 14 April that the elections in Nigeria generally produce two lists, one with the number of votes per party and another with the number of deaths during the elections. An unsettling and sadly true remark.

On election day there were at least two major bombings and multiple smaller violent incidents directly relating to the elections, killing hundreds people. This was barely surprising, as the whole run-off had been tainted by bloodshed. Much media attention went to the religiously motivated violence in the city of Jos, on the fault line between the Islamic north and the Christian south, but this was only part of a much larger pattern of conflicts not limited to religious antagonisms. Politicians hire gangs to intimidate opponents and their supporters, with not only voters, but also several candidates murdered in the months before the elections. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an organisation that represents the Ogoni indigenous group from the Niger Delta and a UNPO Member since 1993, has voiced its alarm about the large scale political violence against its candidates for the election. Between November 2010 and February 2011, at least 5 prominent Ogonis were murdered. On top of that, just days before the election Mr. Emmanuel Deeyah, an Ogoni lawmaker in the House of Representatives, was abducted by gunmen after his driver was shot.

It is no surprise therefore that significant irregularities in the voting process were reported in the Rivers State (the federal state encompassing the Niger Delta) and multiple other states. Illicit attempts to influence the voting process are expected in a country where democracy is a zero-sum game. All Nigerian elections so far have been marked by rigging on a large scale; the 2007 elections were particularly bad in this respect. Nigeria’s oil industry creates an enormous amount of wealth ($40-$60 billion every year), large portions of which disappear  unaccounted for into the pockets of politicians. Supporters expect to share in this wealth when their candidate wins, thereby maintaining a patronage system. This kind of patronages permeates the whole system, with the federal government also trying to redeem regional conflicts in this way. This does little to stabilize the country in the long run as government funds are finite and ethnic minorities with less influence, like the Ogoni, often not get any funds. The fact that the Ogonis have not seen investment into the development of their region, despite the fact they reside on top of 90% of Nigeria’s oilfields and as a result have to deal with widespread environmental degradation, is a good example of how this system works.

That a large part of the international press deemed the elections a success seems strange when looking at the mentioned abuses, but such claims are not completely unfounded. Current president Goodluck Jonathan, in office since the death of his predecessor Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in May 2007, made fair elections one of his spearheads and seems to have at least tried to deliver. The new complicated and costly voting system seems to have paid off to a certain extent. A lot was done to avoid the most blatant attempts of rigging, people were allowed to watch the counting of the votes for example, and PDP governors, whose party lost seats, did step down after losing their constituency.

Do such democratic successes outweigh the numerous abuses mentioned earlier? Do the successes point to the beginning of a new era and the final reckoning with the country’s authoritarian past? Possibly. With an economic growth rate of close to 10 percent Nigeria is already proving in other spheres that things can change for the better. But just as the economic growth is unevenly distributed among the population, with smaller ethnic groups like the Ogoni getting little benefit from it, the democratic improvements also remain shaky. The elections have only just begun, and a lot can go wrong. The presidential elections of 16 April, which incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan is widely expected to win, could create tensions, as there can be only one winner from one ethnic and religious group. But here we also see small positive signs. It is remarkable in its own right that Mr. Jonathan has a good chance of winning; as an ethnic Ijaw from the Niger Delta he would be the first elected president who did not belong to one of the three major ethnic groups of Nigeria, the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. But it remains to be seen if other religious and ethnic groups will accept his victory or if Mr. Jonathan will step down voluntarily if he unexpectedly loses.

Much is at stake. Failed elections in Nigeria would mean a big setback for the country and the region. If democracy does not fulfil its role as a safety valve in this ethnically diverse country, further ethnic and religious tensions could result, hitting small minorities especially hard. At the same time, it must be kept in mind that elections are only one part of a free and just state. An independent judiciary, respect for human-rights, including those of minorities, a free press and the rule of law are just as important. These areas all leave a lot of room for improvement in Nigeria.