On April 9, Nigerians head to the polls to vote in the presidential and gubernatorial elections. Since 1999, when the country returned to civilian rule, each election has been marred by violence, bribery, and allegations of fraud. Adding to the already daunting challenge is President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to run for election, disregarding the unwritten power-sharing agreement between north and south.
Jonathan assumed office last year when his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, died while in office. This situation raised political tensions in Nigeria because the presidency is supposed to rotate between leaders from the north and the south. From 1999 to 2007, it was the south’s turn to rule. Then, from 2007 to 2015, the north was meant to be in power. Despite then-Vice President Jonathan being from the Christian south and Yar’Adua being from the predominantly Muslim north, Jonathan became Nigeria’s new president. Jonathan’s choice to run in next month’s election has further threatened Nigeria’s presidential arrangement. Northerners in particular object to Jonathan’s disregard for the political “zoning,” fearing that they will be politically marginalized and lose influence over distribution of the oil revenue and patronage that run Nigeria’s political economy, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell.
While 27 countries in Africa take part in presidential, legislative, and local elections this year, the United States’ capacity to observe and support favorable democratic outcomes will be stretched very thin. Nigeria should be a focus for the U.S. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. It is also a force for stability in West Africa and the largest contributor of peacekeepers in northern and sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, Nigeria is a significant trading partner for the U.S. and America’s largest African source of oil. As such, U.S. foreign direct investment in Nigeria is the largest in sub-Saharan Africa.
Jonathan has taken considerable measures to reform Nigeria’s electoral system. One of the most encouraging steps was Jonathan’s appointment of respected professor Attahiru Jega as chair of the Independent National Election Commission. Jega, who is struggling with a highly inaccurate voter registry, instituted reforms such as the use of biometric technology for voter registration, thereby decreasing the chances for voter fraud. While international election experts argued that there was simply not enough time to register voters before the election, the results were remarkable. Currently, 67.8 million people have registered to vote, nearly reaching the ambitious target of 70 million.
These efforts are positive and should be applauded. The U.S. needs Nigeria to be a strong, stable and democratic partner in Africa. If conducted in a free, fair, and transparent manner, Nigeria’s election can send a significant pro-democracy message to northern Africa and the Middle East. However, the U.S. should also not rubber stamp a flawed process as that would send the opposite message to the region. Like many countries in Africa, Nigeria’s stability is threatened by ethnic and religious divisions. Pre-election demonstrations have sparked violence and bombings in some of Nigeria’s most populous cities and could be a harbinger of what lies ahead in April. The U.S. should be prepared to assist, where prudent, a peaceful election in Nigeria, but it should not engage in transparent spin if that effort falls short.