A Fitful Start to Elections in Nigeria

LAGOS, Nigeria—In the twelve years since Africa’s most populous nation transitioned from military dictatorship to civilian rule, the three elections held have been far from democratic exercises—instead, they have been flashpoints for violence, igniting communal tensions across the country and disenfranchising large numbers of voters.

On Saturday, the first of three rounds of elections set for this month kicked off across Nigeria, where almost half of the country’s 150 million people are registered to vote. Then, a few hours after voters had lined up at polling stations and elections officials were carrying out the accreditation part of vote, the elections commission declared he was stopping the vote due to missing ballot materials in polling sties throughout the country.

The false start is a huge blow to Nigerian voters, who have felt these elections could mark a change from the violent and fraudulent votes of the past. This is in large part because of the leadership of Attahiru Jega, a respected academic who was appointed last June by President Goodluck Jonathan as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission—long known as a notoriously broken institution in a nation ridden with corruption and political “Godfatherism.”

On Friday, the eve of the parliamentary polls, Chairman Jega addressed the nation on primetime television:

Twelve years ago, our dear country Nigeria returned to democratic rule and we began a journey that many expected by now would have produced a stable democratic system in which peaceful, free, fair and credible elections are routine and taken for granted. Unfortunately, this is still not the case and Nigerians are yet to reap the dividends of democracy. The elections we are about to commence tomorrow, Saturday 2 April, provide the chance for us as a nation to get it right. It is incumbent upon all of us to join hands together to conduct elections that are free, fair and credible. Bringing this about successfully is vitally important to the future of our nation, therefore WE MUST NOT FAIL and we must GET IT RIGHT.

Jega’s rallying cry is indicative of a common hope that everyday Nigerians and the international community alike seem to share about the 2011 elections: let them be better than the 2007 polls. The country’s last elections were universally condemned by the observation missions and human rights groups monitoring the vote for being fraudulent, violent, and poorly organized.

Observers say there are reasons for optimism that the hope of more peaceful and credible polls in Nigeria could be realized this year.

President Obama’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, last week praised the work to date of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, saying that Attahiru Jega has “an outstanding job of managing this process and helping to reshape an election commission whose reputation had been deeply tarnished by the leadership.”

“The dominant mood (among Nigerians about the elections) is optimism mixed with fear,” said Nigerian political analyst and Open Society Institute fellow Ike Okonta. Okonta said the optimism is hinged on two factors: the leadership of Chairman Jega and his colleagues in the electoral commission, who “has demonstrated through word and deed that they’ll deliver clean elections this time,” and to incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan, who Okonta said is “widely viewed as a decent politician…(who), will not resort to violence and other underhand tactics.”

At the same time, given the patterns of violence, impunity, and intimidation that characterized the two elections held since military rule ended, many fear that serious obstacles may still prevent the April polls from marking a step forward for democracy in Nigeria. Likewise, given the track record of most of Nigeria’s elected official, even if they are given a mandate to rule in a peaceful and credible contest, it seems too optimistic to hope that they will follow through on the lofty campaign promises made to their people, the majority of whom live in desperate poverty despite the massive oil wealth of the country.