Up Close and Personal in Nigeria’s Election

KANO, Nigeria–Given the monumental crises ongoing in North and West Africa, it is possible that this month’s parliamentary, presidential, and state governor elections in Nigeria may pass by without a great deal of international attention and media coverage. Regardless of how much outsiders are watching these races, however, within the country, the significance of the vote is lost on no one.

In Africa’s most populous region and its economic giant, the majority of people struggle to get by in large part because they do not enjoy the basic rights of citizenship. To cite a starkly obvious and ironic example in the continent’s largest oil and gas producing nation: most citizens do not have reliable electricity in their homes or the income to afford fuel for their generators for the aforementioned reason.

Many Nigerians I’ve met are under no illusions about the extremely corrupt and dysfunctional nature of their government, but nonetheless, the 2011 elections are viewed as a chance for the country to change course. For the civil society activists, professors, and youth leaders I’ve met over the past week in several Nigerian cities, this vote truly seems to be about two newly popularized electoral buzzwords: hope and change.

Nigeria’s three-stage vote got off to a foreboding start last Saturday when the electoral commission announced a two-day delay of the polls after the parliamentary elections were already underway across the country. Many voters were angered as they experienced firsthand the serious logistical challenges hampering the polling process across the country. Local newspapers argued that the public should have been informed of the issues that prevented ballot papers from arriving on time to many stations before they turned out en masse on Saturday morning. To add to the apparent logistical chaos, on Sunday, the commission announced another late-breaking further delay of polling, pushing the entire process back by a week.

These hiccups may have somewhat soured international and local expectations that these elections could be a turning point for the nation. Multiple fraudulent elections over the past decade have indicated the dire state of democracy in Nigeria, to the chagrin of many Nigerians. “The 2007 elections, we cannot even use that word to describe what that was,” scoffed a taxi driver in the northern city of Kano when I asked him to compare the last elections held in his country  to how this year’s process was shaping up.

The logistical hiccups have largely not put a damper on the enthusiasm of Nigerians eager to participate in this year’s vote. Many believe that under the credible and competent leadership of Professor Attahiru Jega, the Nigerian electoral commission may be capable of pulling off a vote that could represent the will of the people and serve as a legitimate means of determining the will of the people and their political preferences.

This would be a novel experience indeed. Nigeria’s transition from military to civilian rule, which began in 1999, has provided little space for the optimism in democracy and political rights that seem to be inspiring many Nigerians to turn out to cast their votes this time. Nasir Abbas, who heads a civil society group called the Civil Rights Congress in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, told me today that Nigerian citizens have enjoyed very few of the typical dividends of the civilian, democratic rule they expected after the demise of military dictatorship in their country 12 years ago.

Aside from increased press freedom, Abbas explained, it is hard to point to anything related to basic service delivery or citizen rights that has changed for the better since 1999. The number of functioning (and not hopelessly corrupt) institutions including hospitals and schools, for instance, has no doubt decreased since the end of military rule. Abbas and others I have interviewed in the past week repeated the same refrain: the Nigerian political leadership has, over the past decade, driven the country into the ground–to the extent that the citizens of Africa’s most robust economy feel compelled to leave the country (if they have the means) to seek quality health care and education, among other services.

Whether or not the 2011 elections in Nigeria will in fact be the turning point that many Nigerians are hoping for remains to be seen. But Nigerians themselves know that the polls are a watershed, perhaps even make-or-break moment. Oladayo Olaide of the Open Society Institute’s Nigerian program told me that “if Nigeria gets it wrong this time,” the consequences within the country and across the continent will be felt for years to come. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t have their eyes on Nigeria right now, the Nigerian electorate itself is aware of the impact their votes could have–if their leaders don’t once again prevent free and fair polls from taking place.