Americans tend to think of elections as the apex of democracy. But in some cases they are the opposite. In countries with weak democratic cultures and lax rule of law, elections can be destabilizing. They can promote violence and undermine good governance.
Nigeria is a case in point. The success of democracy in the country, which has a population of 177 million and is home to Africa’s largest economy, matters for the whole continent. Yet with national elections scheduled for February 14, anxiety is high. The recent global collapse of oil prices hit the country hard, since oil contributes more than 70 percent of the government’s revenue and more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange. The Lagos stock exchange is in the doldrums, and between October 2014 and the end of January, the Nigerian naira has fallen from 155 to the U.S. dollar to 191.30. The bad news keeps coming: the radical Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram appears to be gaining strength, the country’s political class is badly fragmented, and popular confidence in the government’s ability to provide security is eroding.
It is no wonder that some in Nigeria are feeling a distinct nostalgia for 2011, when sitting President Goodluck Jonathan defeated Muhammadu Buhari—a retired general who took power in a 1983 coup and ruled until 1985—at the polls. (Elected vice president in 2007, Jonathan initially became president in 2010 upon the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua.) At the time, international observers proclaimed the 2011 elections a dramatic improvement over Nigeria’s 2007 elections (a low bar) and were notably optimistic about the country’s future. If they had been paying close attention to the vote, though, they might not have been. In many ways, the 2011 elections set the stage for the current national crisis.
Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, with each vote power has alternated between the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south, a strategy adopted to forestall the political polarization among the religiously distinct (but not religiously uniform) regions. Yet power alternation