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Nigeria’s Elections: Deciding the Fate of a Young Democracy

By Chidi Odinkalu

Unquestionably the most closely-fought in Nigeria’s turbulent history, Nigeria’s presidential elections on 28th March offer both promise and peril for Africa’s most populous country.

Let’s begin with the promise. Nigeria’s potential is immense if it can harness the dividends of democracy and its demography. Both are on show in these elections. About three quarters of Nigeria’s 170 million people are under-35 years old; half are under -18.

The youthful demographic partly explain the passion in these forthcoming elections: many of the participants will be voting for the first time. Blissfully unconstrained by the troubles of their country’s past, these young voters simply want a country that promises them a better future.

Since the end of military rule in May 1999, Nigeria has enjoyed 16 years of uninterrupted civilian rule, the longest in its history. Over this period, the judiciary has emerged as a major stabilizing influence in elections, and institutions for fighting corruption have been established, albeit with mixed results.

The benefits of these advances are evident in the closeness of the imminent ballot. Nigerians have a choice between two parties – the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) – each with a genuine chance of winning the presidency. This is progress.

In the immediate term, however, the management of these elections has been beset by challenges of digital technology. In an effort to confront the country’s reputation for controversial elections, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will at these elections deploy a new biometric voter identification solution for the first time. How this experiment works could determine the outcome of the elections as well as their acceptability.

Despite the progress and possibilities, Nigeria’s forthcoming Presidential election is pregnant with peril. The ballot takes place as the country battles brutal, extremist violence in the north-eastern States master-minded by the dreaded Boko Haram sect, which killed over 11,000 last year alone, has displaced nearly two million people, and recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

This is a dire humanitarian situation that also poses challenges for election administration. The elections have already been postponed by six weeks, supposedly to allow time to restore security for areas under the Boko Haram threat. The military have made significant recent gains in this campaign, recovering about 40 towns and settlements previously occupied by the extremists.

Together with inter-communal violence in the north-central states and resource militancy in the resource rich, Niger-Delta, however, this violence has stretched the resources of Nigeria’s internal security institutions and somewhat foregrounds the forthcoming elections.

These elections will test the limits of Nigeria’s extraordinary resilience and diversity. The country is no stranger to violence around elections, but what is happening this year is unprecedented. The National Human Rights Commission that I chair has recorded scores of deaths from political violence already in 2015.

In January 2015, former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and his former counterpart in the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, brokered a peace pact between Nigeria’s principal parties to eschew political violence. It has had little impact.

The warning signs have been showing for some time already. In a report released on 13 February, the Human Rights Commission warns that “if urgent steps are not taken to arrest further escalation, Nigeria’s 2015 general elections would confront a high risk of significant violence which could pose a clear and present danger to the stability of the country and its neighbours.”

In Kenya in 2007 and in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 there were early warnings that elections would be tight – and heated. But little was done before the storm broke. Thousands died in Kenya; in Côte d’Ivoire, France intervened militarily when Laurent Gbagbo took to violence to cling to power – he has ended up in The Hague, answering International Criminal Court charges.

Nigeria is a young democracy and an emerging economy but the challenges around these elections are exceptional. To overcome them, the two leading Presidential candidates – incumbent President, Goodluck Jonathan and his challenger and former military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari – must take personal responsibility to set a more civil tone, condemn and hold to account their supporters who use hate speech or incite violence, and commit unequivocally to accepting the outcome of the polls.

They both need to show a united front against the despicable Boko Haram insurgency – militarily, but also morally. This means the military must respect the human rights that the extremists flout, while staying neutral from election politics.

Nigeria’s stability as the anchor of sub-Saharan Africa matters to the world. Nigerian peacekeepers have helped protect people from conflict across Africa. Nigeria also has the largest economy on the continent, with £8billion in trade with the UK alone. The world, especially the UK, should lend its support to Nigeria so that, together, we can realise the promise of these elections.

Chidi Odinkalu is the Chairman, Nigeria Human Rights Commission

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