Nigeria's Delicate Presidential Election Transition

Nigerians protest after an election in 2007 that was horribly managed and cost 200 lives.

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with more than 150 million citizens and the second-largest economy after South Africa, is bracing up for a delicate political transition process that leads to a presidential election on January 22, 2011. For the next four months, Nigeria, the "giant" of Africa will be on political crosshairs as its more than 50 registered political parties select presidential candidates, run campaigns across a vast geographical area and prepare for the presidential election. The January 2011 presidential election in Nigeria is a delicate process for multiple reasons.

First, Nigeria has a history of messy, undemocratic national elections. The 2003 and 2007 national elections in Nigeria were dogged by accusations of ballot snatching and brazen electoral rigging by domestic and international election observers. Both elections resulted in lengthy litigations by aggrieved losing candidates. Few of the losing candidates in gubernatorial and parliamentary elections won their mandate back through the judicial process. Organized violence, past military coups, ethnic and religious militancy and threats to the corporate existence of Nigeria are traceable to widely acknowledged beliefs that past elections have rarely been free and fair.

Closely related to the messy electoral process is the extraordinary challenge of organizing and managing electoral logistics in Nigeria. Difficult terrain in rural parts of the country and lack of basic infrastructure make it difficult to effectively manage elections. Recruiting trusted ad hoc electoral officers and training them to manage electoral booths throughout the country is not an easy task in a country where basic infrastructure is in short supply. In addition, voter registration in Nigeria for the past 32 years has been a shambolic, often fraudulent affair. It is a struggle in Nigeria to be registered to vote. It is also a struggle, once registered to vote, for someone's name to remain in the valid voters' register. Even when named in a valid voter register, it is not uncommon for names to go missing during the day of the election.

The so-called dividends of democracy have largely failed to materialize in Nigeria. Despite 50 years of political independence, Nigerians today struggle to have access to constant electricity supply, basic sanitation, portable water, passable roads, decent health services and quality education. Public safety remains a nationwide challenge and stable macroeconomic policy a work in progress. Despite earning more than $300 billion from oil revenues, Nigerians remain among the poorest in the world, with huge income disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike the situation in established democracies where elections often posit a choice between competing political and economic ideologies, past elections in Nigeria have been based on personalities, ethnic jingoism, religious affiliation and parochial economic interests. Feelings of political, economic, religious and cultural marginalization are rarely addressed during campaigns or upon assumption of office.

Elections in Nigeria represent a life-or-death struggle for power—local, state and national levels—since life in the opposition is lonely, dangerous and disorganized. The spoils of office are reserved almost exclusively for the winner. Four or eight years in a political office in Nigeria can translate into unbelievable personal wealth for those elected and their close associates. Four or eight years in the political wilderness for a politician in Nigeria can also be a kiss of death, prompting the post-administration strategy that many Nigerian politicians have perfected—the "Any Government in Power" or "AGIP" strategy, in which they change political parties and political ideologies more often than chameleons change their skin colors.

Nigerians remain mired in hard-scrabble poverty. The average Nigerian is focused on how to feed his immediate family and provide upkeep for his extended family. The daily struggle for survival has made it difficult for sophisticated grassroots organizing and advocacy to take root in Nigeria. The Nigerian politician has enjoyed a rare luxury in politics: lack of reprisal for wrongdoing due to a morbidly poor and dispirited citizenry.

What does the future portend for Nigeria's democracy in the next four months? This is a difficult question. However, important clues are already evident.

The newly reconstituted Nigerian national electoral body appears determined to conduct a free and fair election in Nigeria. However, this pledge must be placed against the backdrop of an ambitious electoral timetable between now and late January. The pledge by the electoral body to complete valid voter registration nationwide by early December requires extraordinary efficiency by the electoral body. It is also a herculean task to develop, deploy and implement a nationwide electoral anti-rigging strategy within the short time frame.

Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck has repeatedly stated his commitment to a free and fair election in 2011. He has also pledged that his government will not interfere with the work of the national electoral body. However, it is now widely reported that President Goodluck is a candidate for the office of the presidency. In addition, all serious, presently known presidential candidates have indicated their desire and commitment to a free and fair election. These commitments will be tested within the next six weeks as political parties organize primaries for presidential candidates. In addition, the national electoral body and law enforcement agencies have stated their determination to arrest and vigorously prosecute election riggers.

Nigeria faces a delicate four-month transition period leading up to the vote. Nigerians need to be vigilant and ensure that their votes count. African and international partners of Nigeria also need to assist the country in conducting a presidential election that is hitch-free and transparent.

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