Judging Nigeria's Election Season

Can the New Government in Abuja Overcome Nigeria's Many Challenges?

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo says that he fears for his country. He should. Political, ethnic, and religious violence have been on the upswing. The end of a long-standing, informal presidential power-sharing arrangement between the north and south within the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) -- known as "zoning" -- encourages appeals to ethnicity and religion in places as diverse as Yorubaland and the country's so-called middle belt. What is more, too many Nigerian politicians display a winner-take-all frame of mind, leading them to behave as though elections are a matter of life and death.

In the first of three polls, Nigerians voted for members of the National Assembly on April 9. They will vote for a president on April 16, and for governors and other local officials on April 26. The April 9 vote, although not perfect, remained broadly peaceful. It appears that the balloting, if not flawless, was more credible than it had been in 2003 and 2007.

With few exceptions, the leading presidential candidates in the April 16 election did not address in any detail the difficult issues that a future government must face. The presidential candidates who did talk about substance, notably Pat Utomi, who has since dropped out, exert only limited influence over the national dialogue. Such candidates lacked strong national organizations and were perceived to be resting on the political margins. More typical is incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's campaign message urging Nigerians "to always think, say, and do well about Nigeria, and in so doing, Nigeria will go well."

Meanwhile, astute observers such as the Lagos Guardian's Reuben Abati are looking at events in North Africa and asking whether such popular rage as the international community saw in Cairo's Tahrir Square could happen in Nigeria.

Many Nigerians believe that free, fair, and credible elections could reverse the downward spiral of governance that has led their country to stagnation at home and the brink of irrelevance abroad. Hence, Jonathan's appointment of the highly respected Attahiru Jega as chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission and its subsequent registration of a claimed 73 million voters was encouraging news. Following the April 9 polling, it is now clear that whatever the precise figure, a very large number of Nigerians did indeed register to vote. Still, voter turnout on April 9 appears to have been low.

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