Despite some encouraging preparations, huge challenges remain in the short weeks before the April general elections at which Nigeria’s international reputation and faith in its own democracy are at stake.
The latest policy briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the build-up to a month that will see the president, state governors and the federal legislature chosen in a series of polls that, if credible and peaceful, could finally reverse the degeneration of the franchise since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999. However, many politicians still seem determined to bribe, rig or bully their way to office.
“The polls could mark a turning point for Nigeria”, says Kunle Amuwo, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst. “But a repeat of the 2007 sham elections would increase the country’s vulnerability to conflict, further alienate citizens from the political elite and reinforce violent groups’ narratives of bad governance and exclusion. Flawed polls may ignite already straining fault lines, as losers protest results”.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who came to office when his predecessor died last year and seeks a new term in his own right, has made repeated commitments to respect the rules. The government chose an esteemed academic and civil society activist, Professor Attahiru Jega, to preside over the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) and seems inclined to respect its autonomy, including by providing funds on time. The recent voter registration was far from perfect but appears to have increased confidence in the electoral authorities’ ability to protect the integrity of the polls.
An uphill battle remains, however, as high-stakes contests for the spoils of office spark fierce winner-takes-all political battles. Politicians and their sponsors habitually exploit violent groups and social divides to win elections, and many Nigerians perceive the recent upsurge in violence as linked to the general elections. Security forces have previously done little to prevent rigging or violence and have frequently been bought by politicians. Lower-level courts are often corrupt, impunity is pervasive, and the rule of law weak. No one has been convicted of an electoral offence since independence.
Elections, therefore, traditionally offer Nigerian politicians a choice: respect the rules and risk losing to an opponent who does not; or avoid the political wilderness by rigging or violence, knowing that to do so is easy, and you are unlikely to be punished. Shifting these incentives is essential to holding better elections.
“Tackling underlying issues requires reforms of a scope not feasible by April”, says Gilles Yabi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “But by bolstering safeguards, rigorous planning, ensuring better security, acting against bogus results and – at last – convicting electoral offenders, INEC and other institutions can at least make cheating a less attractive option”.
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