Straight talk on democracy and development in Nigeria

KANO, Nigeria–Nigerian voters have high hopes for this month’s elections, after two delays due to logistical hurdles resulted in the first round of the postponed polls finally getting off to a rocky start yesterday. The international community is looking to Nigeria, an economic and diplomatic leader on the African continent, to hold its first legitimate and peaceful elections since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999, after years of military dictatorship.

Everyday Nigerians want to see the 2011 elections usher in a new kind of government, one that is responsible and representative of the needs of its citizenry instead of corrupt and ruled by elite interests.

Aondona Aortim, 35, is a taxi driver from Nigeria’s tense “Middle Belt” region, where deadly intercommunal violence over land and resource issues has taken on an ethnic and religious aspect over the past decade.

Aortim, a father of two, recently spoke to me about the challenges everyday citizens and voters like him face on a daily basis. Like many Nigerians, Aortim hopes that this year’s polls will enable him and his fellow citizens to begin enjoying the “dividends of democracy” that they have been deprived of to date under the current political system in Africa’s most populous nation.

On a drive from the northern trading center of Kano to Jos, the capital of Plateau state in the volatile Middle Belt region, Aortim dissected the current challenges impeding development and democracy in his country:

“What Nigerian needs is infrastructure and development, because we have nothing. If you go around the country, you will see at least one industry that each area can do.

In my state [called Benue], there are fruits in large quantites, there are hectares of mangoes and oranges. But these things are perishable, if you don’t get someone to patronize you, to buy your goods, they will rot. So we have to move them [to other states to seel], but sometime you have an accident, sometimes your car breaks down on the way.

If we had reliable electricity then things could be produce locally. We could make fruit juice locally, use the raw material in our state. People would get jobs and the economy would keep moving. But the way the economy is down now, farmers are not being patronized.

The lack of electricity is a big problem for all Nigerians. That is why we don’t have industries, that is why you see people with generators.

NEPA [the National Electric Power Authority] is not reliable at all, if you rely on it you will have no business.

If you want to set up a barber shop, you have to get a generator. The cheapest one is 15,000 Naira [about $97] and it is nicknamed ‘I pass my neighbor,’ because if you have one you are more wealthy than your neighbors.

I made up my mind that I wanted one for my family because the heat is too much, and without a generator there is no reliable television. We don’t even care about AC [air conditioning], because the current with the generator is too little, so we use fans.

Foreigners who want to invest in Nigeria also find it very difficult because of the electricity problem. It really affects them, because to run anything, you will have very high costs.

Social security is lacking in every part of the country. We complained bitterly during military rule for so long in this country, so we fought it because we thought it was the problem.

But after 12 years, after the military handed over to the PDP [the ruling People’s Democratic Party], for 12 years, nothing has been done. We’ve not seen the dividends of democracy.

They should have done at least one thing, to give us power.”

On Saturday, Nigerians turned out enthusiastically and in droves to cast their votes. An explosion at a polling station in the northern city of Maiduguri and a bomb blast at an electoral commission office near the capital, Abuja, on the eve of the vote, did not stop them. The victors from yesterday’s polls have not yet been announced, but the newly elected officials will rake in hefty annual salaries and benefits amounting to some $1 million per year; let’s hope they heed the words of citizens like Iortim, who expects more responsible governance of his country moving forward.