Earlier this week, history was made in Nigeria. The country’s first ever democratic transition of power between an incumbent president and a challenger took place through what is largely recognized as a free and fair election. This achievement is significant not just for Nigeria, but matters much beyond Nigerian borders. Indeed, Nigeria just set the bar for other countries, particularly in Africa, where struggles around democratization and elections are posing serious challenges. In this context, many have hailed Goodluck Jonathan, even going as far as saying that his “finest action” in office was conceding to Muhammadu Buhari. And while Jonathan certainly deserves praise for his decision not to challenge and accept the results, it’s important to also acknowledge that, had the election not gone smoothly – and many were prepared for a much darker scenario – there might not have been this opportunity for Jonathan, and all of Nigeria, to accept the validity of the results. This is why the chairman of the Nigerian election commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, deserves to be acknowledged, and praised, for having managed to deliver a free, fair, transparent election. He was the true hero of #NigeriaDecides. And Nigerians on social media have certainly noticed.
Elections are massively complex operations. In Nigeria, the responsibility to manage the overall electoral process rests with INEC, a national level, independent organization, which is tasked with the management, coordination and delivery of the election. In Nigeria, there are approximately 120,000 polling locations scattered across the country. Each and every single one of these polling locations needs not only to be staffed by competent, reliable individuals, but ballots, urns, and other materials need to be delivered, in time, to all of these locations.
Nigeria is a huge country, and some parts sorely lack infrastructure, making this deployment particularly challenging. Ballots, for example, must be kept securely and must not be tampered with, a very challenging exercise in a country which experiences political violence on an almost daily basis. Furthermore, under Jega, Nigeria implemented new technologies, such as the geospatial mapping of polling locations, linked to electronic voter registration, which adds another layer of complexity to the process. In contrast, in the United States, elections are handled at the county level, with some coordination at the state level. Los Angeles County has the highest number of registered voters in the country, 4.5 million, which is less than 10% the number of registered voters in Nigeria.
While contending with these logistical challenges, Jega also had to maintain composure while under a significant amount of pressure. Both major parties, at some point or other, accused him of impropriety. Even as the results were coming in, in what could have become a dramatic moment in the election, Jega was challenged by one of Jonathan’s political allies, Godsday Orubebe, who publicly berated Jega and tried to derail the results collation process as trends were showing that Jonathan was losing.
Jega did not lose his composure, and told Orubebe to take his complaints through the proper channels, and continued on with the careful, methodical announcement of the results.
Even though there were some issues in the voting process – some polling locations had to close, other polling locations were poorly staffed and managed, and technology issues affected others – Jega in the end delivered a free, fair, transparent election, allowing Nigerians to express themselves in a meaningful way through their vote. For that, Prof. Jega has earned the respect and admiration of Nigerians. He should also be held in high esteem by the rest of the world for his crucial role in enabling the success of Nigeria’s first truly democratic election.