If Nigerians change their government next Saturday, it will be a boost for African democracy

As Nigerians go to the polls on March 28 to elect a president they will be hoping the upcoming elections go off without a hitch.

They will just want a peaceful, free and fair election. And they won’t be the only ones. Teams of local and international election observers are preparing to monitor the polls to make sure it is “free and fair” – and why not?

Free and fair is good. But there’s more to democracy than free and fair.

The problem with free and fair elections however is that they have not delivered much for Africa. According to data from the African Elections Database, over 90% of the 172 presidential elections held across the continent between 1990 and 2012 were declared free and fair by the panoply of election observers that descended on each one, yet in almost every case, the results were disputed by the losing candidate(s). Nigerians are all too familiar with this. Riots broke out in 2011 after current president Goodluck Jonathan won disputed elections with 800 people reportedly killed. There were widespread protests and rigging allegations in 2007. Both of these elections were certified free and fair. It may be time to reconsider.

Data from the Afrobarometer survey which seeks to capture perceptions of the political, social and economic atmosphere in the country suggest that about half of Nigerian voters believe elections are generally not free and fair, although that fraction dropped to about 48% in the 2012 survey.

AfrobarometerNigeriaElections

In many African elections, there is often not much to choose between the candidates. And the upcoming Nigerian election is no different, policy comes secondary for many to identity politics of region and religion. Incumbent president Jonathan has campaigned on a platform of tackling the Islamist insurgency in the north, diversifying Nigeria’s oil-based economy and reducing youth unemployment. His main challenger, former military ruler Gen. Muhammadu Buhari has promised almost the same package with some regional nuance.
Change can be good

But, there is a real possibility that we might see a transfer of power from the government to the opposition for the first time. There has not been a change from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. If that happens, it will be a great advertisement for Nigerian democracy, much like recent elections have been for neighboring Ghana.

Ghana’s elections are often closely contested but this alone does not satisfactorily explain why Ghana is often held up as a good example of a thriving democracy. We can point to several other factors – from its free press to the central role civil society plays in shaping political discourse – but the most significant factor is its emerging tradition of power transitions between the government in power and the opposition.

Such power transitions are critical because they bring in fresh new faces and new ideas to government. On a much deeper level, these transitions are a powerful demonstration of what democracy is really about – that all citizens have a realistic chance of having their voices heard.

It is rare to have elections in Nigeria–and indeed many other African countries–where allegations of vote rigging do not surface after the results are announced. Frequently, these allegations are made even before the first ballot is cast. Already, Gen. Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has leveled allegations of a wide plot by the government to rig the elections, including a plot to sabotage voter card readers on Election Day and sponsoring ethnic militias to create chaos and violence after the elections.

Given the close nature of the race, the failure of the government to convince voters that nothing untoward is afoot is worrying. With such allegations hanging over the elections, there is a high possibility that if the results don’t go their way, opposition supporters will protest and riots could break out. And that is the last thing Nigerian democracy needs.

A consolidation of democracy in Nigeria is not only desirable for its own sake but is critically important for democracy on the continent. As Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, a strong democratically stable and prosperous Nigeria can assume its rightful place as the big brother in West Africa. For the rest of Africa, successful and peaceful democratic transition in Nigeria will be yet another powerful demonstration that closely contested elections in a polarized environment can have a positive outcome

Democracy works best when citizens feel that their votes count. And opposition parties have little incentive to disrupt the polls or prime their supporters to protest the results when they have a realistic chance of coming to power through the ballot. Perhaps the best way to break this cycle of post-election protests and riots and to consolidate democracy in Nigeria is for power to cycle regularly between the government and the opposition. These upcoming elections present just such an opportunity.

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