Hope Springs in Nigeria

Promising Signs for Democracy in Abuja

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

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