Three men and an election: Who says Nigeria became a democracy overnight?

Saturday June 13 2015

The reality is that the outcome of the election can more accurately be attributed to the discretion of three men, namely Prof Attahiru Jega (centre), the outgoing chairman of Nigeria’s electoral commission, former president Goodluck Jonathan, and newly inaugurated President Mohammadu Buhari (left). ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |

Nigeria’s 2015 elections have been celebrated as democratic miracle for a country that has undergone decades of military rule, but also for a region in which democratic success stories have been rare.

But there is one important respect in which the most celebrated aspects of Nigeria’s peaceful turnover are, in fact, symptomatic of an ongoing crisis that seriously limits the nation’s social development and democratic consolidation.

In all too familiar terms, it can be called a crisis of institutions. It has been argued elsewhere that the “institution of the people” or the “office of the citizen” was the real victor in Nigeria’s 2015 elections.

But when the idea is invoked in reference to Nigeria’s “vibrant civil society,” the “ institution of the people” is, in many cases, reducible to exclusive networks of largely foreign-funded and Lagos/Abuja based organisations staffed by well educated, often social media-savvy individuals.

But the representativeness and accountability of such organisations — both given the sources of their funding and their limited reach across class and other social divides — draws into question the extent to which these “institutions” are truly “of the people.” Social media has its limits and donor money has its objectives.

When, on the other hand, the success of the “institution of the people” is invoked to refer to the resilience of the “masses” in pushing for change through the electoral process, there is at least one sense in which it is meaningful and a few others in which it is a facade.


In the former respect: Nigerian voters defied Boko Haram threats; put aside fears of electoral intimidation and collective violence; and braved long queues, an unnecessarily strenuous electoral process, and even unfavourable weather conditions to exercise their beleaguered franchise. The peaceful turnover can rightly be seen as a reward for an act of bravery from 30 million voters who deserve the commendations they have received.

But to conclude that these voters’ noble efforts were the central cause of the credible electoral outcome would, however, not only be an exercise in self-delusion, but also represent a slight to the voters who turned out in higher numbers over similarly difficult or even worse conditions in previous Nigerian elections, but were rewarded with less laudable outcomes.

Indeed, the reality is that the outcome of the election can more accurately be attributed to the discretion of three men, namely Prof Attahiru Jega, the outgoing chairman of Nigeria’s electoral commission, former president Goodluck Jonathan, and newly inaugurated President Mohammadu Buhari.

For Jega, his personal resistance to pressures mounted by Jonathan’s then ruling PDP to abandon a newly devised biometric voter registration system is central to the many reasons why he has been celebrated as the guardian of Nigeria’s democracy.

Wide recognition that outright rigging would have been all but guaranteed without this electronic system has caused many to overlook INEC’s major missteps, particularly its failures to deliver to a significant number of voters the new permanent voters cards (PVCs) on time—or at all in some cases.

These details notwithstanding, Jega’s determined stance is acknowledged as a central reason why a credible electoral outcome became feasible.

Jonathan has likewise earned resounding applause — and is likely to receive next year’s Mo Ibrahim Prize — for his decision to concede defeat. Never mind that he was defeated outright, and that tightening his grip on power despite this would have been a recipe for awakening chaotic forces beyond his control.

Yet his decision to abide by the arithmetic truth of his defeat was celebrated as progressive in a context in which an incumbent ignoring unfavourable electoral results is still all too imaginable.

President Buhari’s particular contribution to the present optimism over Nigeria’s electoral process comes partially from the fact that his represents the first federal opposition victory in Nigeria’s history.

Yet for the bulk of Nigerians, it is Buhari’s personal reputation as a “no-nonsense” disciplinarian from his time at the helm of a military junta that has been the centre of celebration. These factors have heightened hopes that the battle against Boko Haram and the related and seemingly more intractable war against corruption can be finally be turned.

The decisions and personalities of three men have provided the bulk of the reasons why Nigeria’s recent election was a democratic success rather than a shove over the brink. But this very fact is also a stark reminder that a deep institutional crisis persists in Nigeria.

That the personal discretion of a handful of men is still the difference between images of Nigeria on the verge of upheaval and Nigeria as a “democratic example“ reveals that a long road to stable institutions still lies ahead of Africa’s largest democracy.

The particular kinds of institutions arguably most important for the functioning of a liberal democratic society were revealed to be lacking by the same reasons why the electoral outcome was so celebrated in Nigeria. These are institutions particularly geared toward regulating the behaviours of elites.

Spanning both political and legal domains, such institutions would ensure that key aspects of the electoral processes, the likelihood of a loser relinquishing power, and the prosecution of financial abuse by elites are not left of to the personal discretion of a handful of elected and appointed leaders.

Interestingly, ethnic diversity in Nigerian can be understood as one the factors that have most mitigated this lack of elite-regulating institutions. Constant competition among various ethnic factions of Nigeria’s political networks provides a measure of constraint to the actions of elite in power.

Nigeria’s federalist architecture and the informal practice of “zoning” or rotating political office observed by multi-ethnic coalitions strengthens the power of ethnic diversity to serve as a surrogate elite-regulating institution. Yet shifting interests among elites and the persistence of impunity in the exercise of power suggest that the “institution” of ethnic diversity has not been a stable enough regulator of elite behaviour.

Nigeria is not unique in this sense but is rather a prism through which a broader trend of poorly regulated elite behaviour across the African continent can be viewed. Thus constant references to the “leadership deficit” in Africa can in part be understood both as a recognition that existing institutions fail to regulate elites, and a desire for elites scrupulous enough to manage their own behaviour.

In Nigeria, much of the hope vested in President Buhari rests on the belief that he could create one such scrupulous elite. But beyond a personally driven campaign against corruption and insecurity, a more enduring and worthwhile legacy for Nigeria’s new president lies in strengthening the institutions that will ensure that processes for addressing these challenges remain in place.

Sa’eed Husaini, from Jos, Nigeria, is a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He writes on violence, politics, and natural resource management in West Africa. He tweets @SaeeduH. E-mail: saeed.husaini [at]