It might be tempting for opponents of democratic governance to take Nigeria as a case study in why democracy can’t work in Africa. Actually, the opposite is true. In Nigeria, even with its chaotic and flawed process, the system has held and is holding — far better, so far, than might have been expected.
True, Nigeria’s presidential election, on Feb. 25, was a messy affair. Some polling places didn’t open on time. A new electronic voting system to upload results from the 176,000 scattered polling places to a central website seemed to collapse. There were reports of scattered violence in a few places, with ballot boxes stolen at gunpoint. Turnout was disappointing, at 28.6 percent.
The candidate of the current ruling party, Bola Tinubu, was declared the winner with 36 percent of the vote on March 1. But because of the problems, the result is being challenged by his two closest rivals, Atiku Abubakar, who won 29 percent and Peter Obi, who got 25 percent. Mr. Abubakar, Mr. Obi and their supporters claim the election chaos means the voting was rigged in favor of the ruling party, but they have yet to produce concrete evidence of malfeasance. They are demanding the election be rerun.
That doesn’t mean the vote should be discounted. In fact, much good came from it.
It is encouraging, first, that the losing candidates are pursuing their claims through the courts. They have until March 31 to present their petitions to Nigeria’s appeals court tribunal, which would be expected to issue a written decision within 180 days. While the rhetoric has been heated, remarkably there have been no reports of post-election violence, intimidation or threats. No one has blocked highways, as happened in Brazil after Jair Bolsonaro lost his reelection bid. Opposition party supporters have not attempted an insurrection.
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Second, Nigeria’s military has stayed out of the fray. This was not a given, since Nigeria’s generals ruled the country after a series of coups for most of the 1980s and ’90s. In Africa and elsewhere, a supposedly flawed election has been a handy excuse for militaries to annul election results and seize power for themselves. It happened in Myanmar in early 2021, for example, despite no evidence of any fraud. If Nigeria’s generals remain on the sidelines this time, it could be taken as evidence that Africa’s most populous country, and its largest economy, has moved past its coup-prone history.
Third, this proved to be Nigeria’s most competitive election since democracy was restored in 1999. Each of the three top candidates — Mr. Tinubu, Mr. Abubakar and Mr. Obi — won 12 of the country’s 36 states, a surprisingly even split. And Mr. Obi, who was projected to win in some polls, could claim a stunning victory in Lagos state, Mr. Tinubu’s home turf. Mr. Obi’s campaign was powered by young, better-educated urban voters savvy with social media, but he was unable to make inroads in more rural and traditional areas. But at 61, he is nearly a decade younger than Mr. Tinubu, 70, and can be expected to be in politics for years to come.
Nigeria’s neighbors and its major trading partners, including the United States, have all accepted the result, which most international observers said was largely free and fair, despite problems.
But a delicate period lies ahead. If President-elect Tinubu is eventually confirmed as the winner, he will need Nigerians to fully accept that he was the legitimate victor. This means the losing candidates should have their day in court and be able to present any evidence that election-day problems affected the final result.
Officials have asserted that technical glitches, not sabotage, were the issue and have cited poor internet connections and heavy traffic that slowed the system. But to restore trust, they need to demonstrate this with transparency. All election day irregularities need to be thoroughly examined. And the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission needs to assess what went wrong and fix it. A round of elections on Saturday for 28 governorships and state assemblies seemed to be much better managed and passed without major snafus, despite some scattered reports of violence.
Even a flawed election in Nigeria can set a standard in a part of Africa where staging a coup is more common than canvassing for votes. Among Nigeria’s neighbors, Chad’s military leader, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who seized power when his father was killed in 2021, has repeatedly delayed elections and halted a return to democracy. Military leaders in Mali, which saw coups in 2020 and 2021, have delayed elections until 2024. Guinea’s first democratic leader was toppled in 2021. Niger has been rocked by coup attempts. Benin’s president, Patrice Talon, has clung to power and stacked the parliament, which must approve presidential candidates, with his supporters. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya has ruled since 1982.
An election in Nigeria won’t turn Africa into a democratic utopia. But it can point the way to a different path.
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