Home FEATURES Don’t Steal Nigeria’s Election, By Jean Herskovits

Don’t Steal Nigeria’s Election, By Jean Herskovits

Nigeria Voters
Nigeria Voters

Nigeria’s government canceled the February presidential election just days before it was to be held, postponing it until March 28. If this weekend’s vote is delayed, disrupted or canceled, it will imperil the democratic future of Africa’s most populous country.
This election is unlike any other in Nigerian history. President Goodluck Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party is facing the first credible challenge to a ruling party, and he is intent on staying in power, even though popular discontent with the P.D.P. is rife.
If the election had been held as scheduled on Feb. 14, it is likely that Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the opposition All Progressives Congress would have won. The six-week delay broke the A.P.C.’s momentum and gave the P.D.P. time to to reverse the tide.
Incumbency guarantees access to the treasury and command of the security forces — the first is in play now, and the second could be during the election and its aftermath.
Nigerian politics can be murderous; Mr. Buhari has already survived one attempted assassination, an October bombing in Kaduna. And if there is another postponement, a contrived disruption on election day that leads to an unconstitutional interim arrangement, or if the election results do not appear credible, Nigeria could erupt in violence.
Although Nigerians have often been divided along ethnic, religious and regional lines, there has been a remarkable change. Until quite recently, southern Nigerians overwhelmingly supported Mr. Jonathan, a southern Christian. That view prevailed in 2011, when Mr. Buhari also ran for president. The influential Lagos press portrayed him as a dictatorial, fanatical Muslim seeking to impose Shariah on the whole country despite the fact that Christians were a majority in his cabinet when he ruled the country in the mid-1980s.
But daily life has worsened and corruption has escalated. Last year, Mr. Jonathan removed from office the respected governor of the Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, after Mr. Sanusi announced that in one 15-month period at least $20 billion in government funds went unaccounted for. (The government recently claimed that an audit had found that “only $1.47 billion” was missing).
Meanwhile, the same central government has failed to send money it owes to the states, and teachers and other civil servants have gone unpaid. Currency devaluation and inflation mean that unpaid and laid-off workers in the public and private sectors are now in the same boat as the country’s impoverished and jobless millions. They are unlikely to vote for the status quo.
There have been military humiliations, too. Nigerians are embarrassed that their army needed reinforcements from smaller, poorer neighbors like Chad, Niger and Cameroon to reclaim northern towns from the terrorist group, Boko Haram. In fact, no Nigerian troops were present in some of the liberated towns. Worse, the government is hiring South African mercenaries for $400 a day in a country where soldiers are paid much less, often late, or not at all.
Frontline troops have long complained they did not have adequate equipment or sufficient ammunition. But according to the government’s own figures, a quarter of federal budgets since 2010 have been allotted to security. Many Nigerians conclude that the money has gone to enrich the army top brass and their civilian colleagues.
The February election was supposedly postponed so that the military could focus on the offensive it has now launched against Boko Haram. But the government’s priority doesn’t appear to be protecting Nigeria’s people and territory; its goal is to stay in power.
The postponement has simply allowed the ruling party more time to spend money the opposition cannot match.
Many Nigerians now see Mr. Buhari as the man who can deliver them from corruption and insecurity. He was Nigeria’s military ruler from 1984-85. He was petroleum minister before that. And in the late 1990s, as a civilian, he chaired the Petroleum Trust Fund. He could have enriched himself, but he did not.
In the 1980s, he repelled a Chadian invasion and acted decisively against an earlier extremist Muslim group. As Adeyemi Adefulu, a Yoruba civil servant who was unjustly imprisoned under Mr. Buhari’s regime during sweeping arrests of the allegedly corrupt in the 1980s, wrote recently, “Our jailer has become our hope.” He is now actively campaigning for Mr. Buhari.
With so much at stake, the United States must play a constructive role. Secretary of State John Kerry has stressed that the election must take place on Saturday and that it be “free, transparent and credible.” And Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. last week expressed support for the electoral commission and urged electronic authentication of voters.
More is needed. America must publicly insist on retaining the head of the electoral commission, preventing any election-day violence or intimidation by security forces, and announcing results at each polling place. And voters should not be prevented from using mobile phones to photograph local results as a precaution against later rigging.
This election must not be stolen from the people. Mr. Kerry has suggested that visa restrictions could be placed on anyone who interferes with the electoral process. This policy, along with a threat of targeted financial sanctions, should be announced now and it should include members of Nigeria’s security forces.
The global fall in oil prices, Nigeria’s squandered foreign reserves and the draining of an account intended to cushion price shocks mean that Nigerians face hard times ahead. They deserve to choose who will lead them through those times.

–Jean Herskovits, a research professor at the State University of New York, Purchase, has written on Nigerian politics since 1970.


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