People walk on a bridge during a street procession 'March for Change' in Lagos, March 7, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye / Courtesy Reuters

In early February, Nigerian authorities delayed an upcoming presidential election by six weeks, to March 28. The reason? The military was suddenly double-booked on the original polling day. It would not be available to provide security at voting stations because of a newly announced all-hands-on-deck campaign against Boko Haram. The United States was no more convinced by that reasoning than the thousands of Nigerians who flocked to Twitter to vent and fret. “Political interference with the Independent National Electoral Commission is unacceptable,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “and it is critical that the government not use security concerns as a pretext for impeding the democratic process.”

The sudden change was widely attributed to unpopular incumbent Goodluck Jonathan’s concerns that he would lose. And there had been almost zero expectations for a clean vote anyway. Indeed, it is clearer than ever that democracy in Nigeria is a rather thin veneer. But the United States is right to push for a vote, because Nigeria is poised to make huge strides if an election happens and all parties accept the result. In recent years, democracy and its institutions have made some gains in Nigeria, and that positive momentum would be halted if the people never get to vote.

A couple of factors make Nigeria particularly fertile ground for democracy. First, the country has too many distinct ethnic groups for any one of them to seize control. Indeed, power is already shared through an informal agreement within the ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), in which the presidency rotates every eight years between the mostly Muslim north and the primarily Christian south. Jonathan is a southerner who was vice president and ascended to the top when a northerner, Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office just two years in.

That unexpected break in the cycle allowed the north only a quarter of the time it expected and resulted in some violence. But it eventually led to a positive development: when Jonathan decided to seek a second full mandate, some PDP leaders who wanted the party to field a northerner were upset at his decision and defected. They helped to unite a fragmented opposition, via the February 2013 merger of four smaller political parties into what is now the All Progressives Congress (APC). If the election is held, Nigerians will for the first time choose between two candidates with a legitimate shot at capturing the majority of the vote.

The APC offers no guarantee of longevity—the only thing binding the group together is opposition to Jonathan—but it has so far demanded more transparency and accountability, something that’s been lacking in Abuja. For example, elected APC members in the House of Representatives have been pushing for the full disclosure of an audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the national oil company. Even if they are just grandstanding, doing so called attention to an important issue and made it harder for the government to bury it. And if a multiparty system sticks in Nigeria, the constant presence of an opposition party can only help.

Another area of positive change is ethnicity politics. This election cycle features more voices crossing the divide. The most powerful example is Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian who was president and founder of the current ruling party. He denies having endorsed the opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who ruled as a military dictator between 1983 and 1985, but during an appearance in Nairobi in early February, he suggested that he would vote for the challenger, citing mismanagement and corruption under Jonathan. More examples come from Jonathan’s home region, where corruption is a major concern. Rotimi Amaechi, the governor of Rivers State (which borders Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa), defected from the PDP and took a host of other PDP-affiliated governors with him to the APC. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a group of activists, kidnappers, and oil industry saboteurs who hail from Nigeria’s oil-producing southeast, have endorsed Buhari, as has a youth organization of Jonathan’s own Ijaw ethnic group.

A last example of democratic maturation in recent years is that some specific policies have lived beyond the people who proposed them. In the past, a new leader has typically ripped up existing projects and objectives and promoted his own. But Jonathan, who made electricity sector reform his top priority in office, followed a process first laid out in the early 2000s. Buhari has suggested a few tweaks to the power plan, but not wholesale changes. Objectives that can live beyond a leader’s mandate would add to Nigeria’s stability and make the case to foreign investors that the country is becoming a better place for long-term investment.

A failed election in 2015 could negate all this progress, though. A vote disregarded could send the country into another round of ethnic violence, reinforcing ethnic divisions and discouraging politicians from working within the system and following its rules. Pre-vote polling is limited in Nigeria, but the race is considered a dead heat by most, with a few predicting a win for the challenger. A peaceful transfer of power would reinforce democracy still more and show politicians that voters have the ability to hold them accountable for what they do. Either way, the population of Nigeria is increasingly powerful when enough of them agree on something. In 2012, the government doubled the regulated prices for gasoline and other consumer fuels. Public spaces filled with protesters, and business was disrupted. In the end, the state compromised by restoring half of the subsidy it had just cut.

Certainly there’s no guarantee that an election will protect Nigeria’s democratic gains and leave room for more, and even a clean vote is going to result in some violence: in 2011, after Jonathan had served out the remaining two years of his predecessor’s term and sought his own mandate for a full term, 800 people died after what was considered a fairly transparent vote. Still, a flawed election would be better than none. What’s clear is that people want to vote and that the United States should help them by opposing any further delays.  

  • MATT MOSSMAN is an emerging markets political-risk specialist based in Washington, D.C.
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