Dispatch

Too Big to Fail

But are Nigeria's elections already too fraught to succeed?

ABUJA, Nigeria — Speaking on prime-time television on Friday, April 1, the day before Nigeria was set to vote for a new parliament, Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Nigerian electoral commission, warned his fellow citizens that the country had yet to secure a "stable democratic system in which peaceful, free, fair, and credible elections are routine and taken for granted." This year, he pledged, was Africa's most populous country's time "to get it right." He implored Nigerians to turn out and vote en masse, saying, "We must not fail."

Less than 24 hours later, Jega was before the nation again, announcing that the election would have to be postponed -- even as the voting process was already under way. Crucial ballot materials were missing from stations across the country, the chairman said, and the vote would have to wait until Monday. But come Sunday evening, the electoral body issued another statement pushing the entire timeline for the parliamentary, presidential, and state governor polls back by a week. The election that was too big to fail was off to an inauspicious start.

The weekend's events are a serious blow to the high hopes that this year's election could be something of a new dawn for Nigeria. The so-called democratic transition that began in 1999, when nearly two decades of military dictatorship ended and a civilian president was "elected," has been a farce in the eyes of most Nigerians and international observers, who have seen a series of elections -- in 1999, 2003, and 2007 -- go from pretty bad to shockingly fraudulent and violent. The worst of those elections was in 2007, which EU observers described as the worst they had ever witnessed anywhere in the world, ever, characterized by stolen vote boxes, ballots marked before the polls opened, and a totally opaque counting process.

The Nigerian political order is more akin to "godfatherism" than parliamentary democracy. "Big men," as the wealthy and powerful are called here, run the show, bankrolled by millions of dollars siphoned off from oil revenues and government projects. Everyone else is just grasping for patronage. Champagne-sipping Nigerian elites and cigar-smoking international oil execs stand in stark contrast with the impoverished masses. Oil money is used over and over again to buy temporary peace across the vast and fractured country; elections are no exception.

This time, however, was supposed to be different. President Goodluck Jonathan, who took over after President Umaru Yar'Adua died while in office in 2010, staked his credibility both at home and abroad on his ability to reform the electoral process. He promised to clean up the much-hated Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which had largely been seen as a government vehicle for institutionalized vote stuffing. Jonathan sacked officials, installed new processes, and promised a credible vote.

This weekend's developments have been embarrassing for the INEC and for Jega, in particular, who was recently praised by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson for his work in cleaning up the dysfunctional commission -- in just 10 months as chairman. In the wake of the delay announcements, some prominent civil society groups still expressed their support for Jega, saying they feared sabotage -- by political elites fearing a changed post-election order -- was behind the facade of logistics confusion. In other words, members of Jega's own staff may not have kept him informed about the extreme delays in delivery of key materials, leaving him in the dark before his address on the eve of Saturday's aborted polls. Opposition candidate and former military leader Muhammadu Buhari told Reuters that the ruling party "is afraid to let people come out and vote."

Jega now finds himself between a rock and a hard place -- if he resigns in the coming weeks (as was suggested by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission), he would be making a statement about the attempts of the political elite to discreetly undermine him, but he would forfeit the chance to attempt broader reforms within the electoral commission after the vote. Either way, the elections are coming, and it is clear that the consequences of the 2011 vote will not be inconsequential. Nigeria is a giant on the African continent: It is a diplomatic leader in regional crises from Libya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, most recently, the Ivory Coast. And, as Africa's largest oil and gas producer, it's the undeniable economic motor of the region. The outcome of these elections will set the tone for a whopping 27 votes set to take place on the continent this year. No wonder the International Crisis Group recently warned that if Nigeria's elections do not "reverse the degeneration of the franchise since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999," the impact ill be felt locally and internationally.

In the presidential race, which has now been pushed back from April 9 to 16, the country's roiling and potentially explosive internal political dynamics are on display. Jonathan, the incumbent presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) cleared the first hurdle in the campaign season by winning his party's nomination in January. The victory confirmed that the PDP would, in choosing Jonathan, overlook its gentleman's agreement of rotating the presidency between northern and southern leaders every eight years -- a deal that maintains a fragile balance between powerful regional and religious interests in the country. If that deal were followed, Jonathan, a southerner, would have had to defer for another four years to a northern candidate.

The president's main challenger, Buhari, has played upon disappointments in the north over the PDP's backing of a southerner, Jonathan. Buhari, a northerner who ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, has wide support there in no small part because of his ruthless reputation in office for cracking down on corruption. He has rebranded himself as a candidate for change and may take the vote in the north of the country, though not likely overall.

Anticipating such a challenge, and as a necessary conciliatory gesture, Jonathan took a northerner as his running mate. But that hasn't prevented him from dipping a toe into Nigeria's fractious religious-ethnic politics more than once during the campaign season -- which may worsen tensions in already volatile areas of the country. For example, the president recently traveled to Jos, capital of the tense Middle Belt region -- where more than 250 people have died since Christmas in complex intercommunal violence -- to show his support for incumbent Plateau state governor Jonah Jang, who is notorious for inflaming local tensions between warring communities. Jang has a firm grip on power; during his term, he has skillfully practiced the arts of godfatherism and patronage while consolidating the government's repressive indigene system, which discriminates against more recent settlers to the region. Jang, however, faces competition from his deputy governor, also from the ruling PDP, in one of many races that is now being deemed too close to call; hotly contested races such as this one are likely to inflame tensions during polling and its aftermath.

Indeed, local elections stand to open just as many fault lines across the country as does the higher profile presidential race. Nigerian MPs rake in more than $1 million per year, the Associated Press reports, but this is often a pittance in comparison to what the country's 36 state governors manage to accrue while in office, particularly in the oil-rich Niger Delta states, where politicians unlawfully amassing personal riches is par for the course. Former Delta state governor James Ibori, who is wanted by both the Nigerian and British police services, was arrested last year in Dubai for allegedly stealing $290 million while in office. Despite the country's federal system, governors are to some degree able to run their states as fiefdoms, which holding onto power all the more important. That means that stakes are high for the contests, and the campaigning -- and in recent years vote rigging -- has been intense.

In many of the state gubernatorial races, close electoral contests could easily provoke local conflict and chicanery. The government's preparation for the worst in the polls -- closing land borders, restricting citizens' movements on election day -- is one indication of the extent of localized conflicts in many areas through the country. The National Emergency Management Agency has labeled one-third of the 36 states as "flashpoints" for potential electoral violence; but if conflict erupts, it's hard to judge whether the government and its frequently abusive security forces will manage to contain it.

One of the PDP's campaign promises is "Fresh Air for Nigeria," a phrase splashed across billboards featuring Jonathan's face and his trademark black cap. Fresh air may be something everyone wants; whether or not Jonathan will bring it is not clear. He will almost certainly be returned to power when the country does eventually vote. And despite the inauspicious start to the parliamentary polls, Nigerians don't seem ready to throw in the towel on change yet -- though how the "take two" vote on Saturday turns out will be a key test for the public and for the electoral commission. The risk is all too high that Nigeria's new president, whoever he is, could once again be godfathered in.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

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