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.



Lady in Waiting

So where is the EU's foreign policy chief?

BRUSSELS — The crisis in Libya is a rare instance in which Europeans can plausibly claim to be outdoing Americans in foreign policy, and a rarer one still of the old world being more prepared than the new to use its military muscle. But while France and Britain have burnished their leadership credentials, the same cannot be said of the European Union. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief, has missed her best chance to date to seize the international spotlight. And Ashton's low profile is particularly striking in light of the fact that she is the first occupant of an office designed to ensure that the European Union would assert itself effectively in times like these.

But the bloc's new, much-vaunted, foreign-policy structures have been largely sidelined in the current crisis over Libya. When it finally came, leadership arrived not from Brussels, but from Paris and London. Unified the EU was not: Public disagreements have shattered any semblance of cohesion among the 27 member states. While Britain and France pushed intervention, Germany not only refused to back their motion at the United Nations Security Council, but also removed its ships from a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. Although Ashton issued regular statements, chaired meetings, and visited both North Africa and Egypt, she never emerged as a key power broker.

All this comes less than 18 months after the European Union ushered in the Lisbon Treaty, designed to build a foreign policy worthy of the world's largest trading bloc. Where Ashton's predecessors were forced to rely mostly on the lure of EU membership to gain influence in the region, the latest treaty created a new EU diplomatic service and gave her control over significant financial resources. The European Union still has no military capabilities of its own, but many Europeans hoped that the EU's financial firepower and international prestige would finally be organized to consistently pursue the aggregate interests of all 27 member states.

Yet increasingly, those aspirations of common international strategy come across as adolescent fantasies of political maturity.

Some of the reasons for Ashton's shaky start lie in the fact that, unlike several marquee Europeans who were passed over for the job, she never really wanted, nor expected, this sort of position. She was selected in November 2009 on grounds of political and geographical balance. If Ashton doesn't seem prepared for the chess game of global grand strategy, it's because, in some sense, she isn't. Although she's not a political novice, Ashton has never held elected office. She was appointed by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair to serve in his cabinet, and was later named as leader of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain's Parliament, where she quickly earned a reputation as an adept conciliator.

In Brussels, too, she is known for preferring negotiating behind the scenes to sparring publicly with sharp-elbowed colleagues. As she put it at the time of her appointment as foreign-policy chief, she is not "an ego on legs." Her first EU post, as trade commissioner, suited this pragmatic, low-key style: she built solid relations with her U.S. counterpart, Ron Kirk, and negotiated a free trade agreement between the European Union and South Korea. But she seems ill at ease in the role of figurehead for a new, more assertive, European foreign policy.

Of course, in some sense, Ashton is creating the job as she goes along. As the first occupant of her post, she has inherited little by way of an effective bureaucratic infrastructure. Ashton recently selected and gained approval for a Brussels headquarters for the new European diplomatic service she is setting up, but it may be another nine months before she and her staff can move in and work from the same building. She is also suffering from the lack of an effective communications strategy: Last month, she appointed a chief spokesman to a position which had lain vacant for a year, and only recently have seasoned diplomats like Pierre Vimont, former French ambassador to Washington, been brought on board. But the initial negative press headlines following her appointment have already left their mark: The repeated questions about her suitability have fostered have a bunker mentality in Ashton's inner circle.

Ashton admits that she has faced a steep learning curve. "It is work in progress," she told me in early March, speaking in her current, temporary office on the 12th floor of the European Commission, the bloc's executive. "We are dealing with all these situations for the first time." She said, though, that she had learned from her experience last year following the natural disaster in Haiti, when she was criticized for reacting slowly. What she concluded was that "we could do things better."

But Ashton's first major foreign-policy test -- the cascading series of revolutions in the Arab world -- has been infinitely more complex than Haiti.

Europe's struggle to agree through January and February on whether to pressure Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign has echoed in the policy debates about Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi and the Libyan opposition. With the memory of the Iraq quagmire fresh, some countries felt queasy at any mention of military intervention. Ashton's standing was itself damaged when one of her spokespersons portrayed her as very skeptical about a no-fly zone. At a stroke, that annoyed Paris and London, the bloc's two big foreign-policy powers.

But personal gaffes aside, the current North Africa crisis shows that some of Ashton's problems are structural and would be hard for anyone to overcome. The European Union is not a sovereign state, and when it marches in step it's usually because it is obliged to. In areas like environmental policy or the internal market, EU laws can increasingly be determined by a majority vote of member states, and those decisions are enforceable by EU courts. But foreign policy remains primarily a responsibility of national governments, so Ashton finds herself responsible for a diplomatic architecture and aspirations that are not backed by the accountability of or enforceability under European law. The hope is that integration of national foreign policies will be achieved organically, but, in reality, national capitals will need to commit to being more accommodating if any EU foreign-policy chief is to stand a chance at success.

For now, the bloc's big member states have not shown a penchant for helping Ashton out, their leaders appearing more concerned with their own political profiles than hers. Early in March, French President Nicolas Sarkozy demanded a special summit of EU leaders, only to pre-empt it by giving de facto French recognition to the Libyan opposition the day before. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, visited Tunisia early in February, well before Ashton was able to schedule her own trip. And just as she was about to become the first major-league politician to visit Cairo since the uprisings, up popped David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, a few hours earlier to grab the attention of European television cameras.

But while Britain and France are by far the biggest defense powers, Ashton is tied to the pretense that all 27 countries have an equal voice. Behind the scenes, she has tried to coordinate policy among other European governments, but the vast and varied array of national interests has repeatedly exposed itself. In the case of Libya, for example, Italy initially insisted on taking a cautious position. It had deep financial investments there, colonial ties, and a number of initiatives to stem a flow of migrants to its southern borders. Malta, another country on the front line of potential refugees, also resisted any intervention. And Poland led several East European states in arguing that Libya's problems were an internal affair.

Among Ashton's greatest institutional weaknesses is that her main interlocutors are Europe's collected foreign ministers, whose power and credibility have steadily eroded for a variety of reasons. Germany's Guido Westerwelle, for example, has been undermined by his domestic unpopularity. Britain's Hague has yet to make much impact on the foreign policy stage, largely because his government had previously been focusing on domestic economic issues. France's Bernard Kouchner was, for months, a lame duck; his successor, Michèle Alliot-Marie, was recently sacked amid the fallout from the uprisings in North Africa. Her heavyweight replacement, Alain Juppé -- judging from the way he was taken by surprise by his president's decision to recognize the Libyan opposition -- appears not to be as keyed in on major decisions as he would have thought.

Indeed, foreign policy in Europe is increasingly determined by its prime ministers and presidents. And they, in power, protocol, and seniority, far outgun Ashton. On big, divisive issues such as whether to press for a no-fly zone over Libya, she has little option but to keep her head down and follow their lead. Javier Solana, who held a less powerful version of Ashton's job before she took office, found it impossible to say anything on the subject of the invasion of Iraq when Europe's big member states were divided. The Lisbon Treaty was intended to help bridge that gravitas gap, but it has clearly not done enough on that score.

Recognizing this, Ashton has made a concerted decision to lower expectations. She has quietly dialed down some of the more towering ambitions that Brussels bureaucrats and European insiders had of her. She has said she will concentrate on the few areas where she can realistically hope to exert influence -- most notably, international development. She is also dedicated to developing long-term strategies to bolster Europe's soft power. This month, together with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, she presented a well-received joint paper on how to reset relations with the Arab world. This program, endorsed by EU leaders at a summit also this month, suggested that all grants and loans should be conditional on democratic reform, which would amount to a significant change in EU policy.

But these are not the sort of speedy, authoritative, ambitious results some had been hoping from Europe's first empowered foreign-policy chief. Ashton's efforts seem destined to be overshadowed by public disagreements among the big member states, which once again will leave Brussels groping for a raison d'être. Events in the Arab world may be moving with dizzying speed, but the job of building a European Union foreign policy will continue to travel at its own, glacial pace.