From non-democratic regimes to fully consolidated liberal democracies, the path is never a smooth one, nor does it offer any guarantees. In this process, elections become key-elements, which help provide a better view on where a particular country places itself in this path at a certain moment in time. Like most of the other African countries, Nigeria will face new presidential elections soon. Up to this point it has made remarkable progress since the abolition of the military regime in 1999, but it still has a long way to go.
The next president is to be inaugurated on 31 May 2015, but according to the Nigerian Constitution, national elections must be held six months earlier. What is novel in the framework of Nigerian domestic politics is that for the first time in 14 years, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is facing a serious national opposition, portrayed by the All Progressives Congress (APC). Moreover, a recent split within the PDP itself has started to take shape. As a result, current president Goodluck Jonathan’s party has lost its overwhelming dominance in the Nigerian political landscape after having towered over all the other political parties since 1999 and winning every election without ever being seriously challenged. Still, optimism should be kept within realistic boundaries, as the APC is a new political construction still facing several internal challenges.
What raises even more concerns is president Goodluck’s escalating authoritarian tendencies, precisely because of this new challenge of his authority. In his struggle to overcome an Islamist insurgency of Boko Haram, as well as allegations of state corruption and high unemployment, the current president seems tempted to respond to all these issues by silencing his critics and by actions having authoritarian overtones. How did it come to such a situation and where does the problem lie?
The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2013 has revealed that Nigeria is among the 34 most corrupt nations in the world. Despite its great potential in terms of resources (mainly oil and gas), it remains to this day a poor country, suffering from severe economic backwardness. Moreover, it has become clear from the overall image established at the beginning that we are not dealing with a liberal democracy, but with a hybrid regime of some kind.
More than two decades ago, Nigerian intellectual Chinua Achebe described the main problem of Nigeria as simply a failure of leadership. To this day, the blame seems to be put exclusively on the Nigerian political elites, who are either unable or unwilling to rise to the responsibilities and challenges that come with office holding. It is an ongoing clash, not in the name of different political ideas and policy-making approaches, but for power and resources by all means. At the same time, however, it is necessary to bear in mind the fact that any political representative is first and foremost a citizen himself/ herself and that a flawed political system is not the work of one man or one faction, but of every citizen. Still, in the case of Nigeria, it is correct to have an elite-oriented analysis, for two reasons that place ordinary Nigerians in a position of vulnerability: Nigeria is a country that has experienced several coups d’etat since gaining its independence, and despite some slight recent improvements, the country has a well- known history of severe election rigging. A concrete proof of what Achebe described as poor leadership was the system of rotation introduced by the PDP, designed to mitigate internal conflicts; the Nigerian political system is characterized by a series of cleavages, which are central to our understanding of the country’s government and politics.
Five years before gaining independence, the country was separated into Three Federated Regions, according to ethnic and religious differences. Currently, the main division is between a Muslim- dominated north and a Christian dominated south. Furthermore, the north is populated mostly by Hausa-Fulani tribes, while the south displays a majority of Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups. The clashes between the two regions also involve important oil resources in the south, near the Niger Delta.
In order to solve this and prevent conflicts from escalating on grounds of political underrepresentation, the PDP introduced a system of rotation, by virtue of which both northerners and southerners would have equal chances to a two to four year term in office. In 2007, after 8 years under the rule of Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (a northern Muslim) was elected president with Goodluck Jonathan (a southern Christian) as his running mate. The PDP’s rotational system seemed to be working successfully until the death of Yar’Adua in 2010. Immediately after, Jonathan took power, an act which triggered a general dissatisfaction among the northerners, who felt as they had been robbed of their promised time in office. The tension further increased in 2011, when Goodluck contested the elections. Not only that, but he has also been accused of marginalizing any political figures which he saw as his potential challengers within the party, on ethnic grounds. In such context, the prospect of him running for office again in 2015 would certainly raise concerns about the further intensification of the tensions between the north and the south. From this point of view, the actions of president Goodluck have demonstrated the fragility and inefficiency in the long run of the rotational system, on one hand, and the entrenched presence of ethnic tensions on the other.
Having taken all these aspects into account, what can be said about the current state of pressure and new actors involved? Are they reason enough to believe that we will be seeing less ethnic and regional tension and significant improvements in Nigerian leadership starting with 2015? Some opt for a skeptical view, portraying the All Progressives Congress as simply forming an ethnic bloc consisting of Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba representatives, competing against Jonathan and his Igbo supporters. However, like in many other cases, it would be overly simplistic to qualify the struggle in Nigeria as exclusively ethnic-centered, although ethnicity is without a doubt a basis of conflict. Nigerian historian Max Siollun suggests an alternative perspective: that the APC should not necessarily be regarded as a tribal alliance between the Yoruba and the Hausa, but rather as a progress in political terms (the novelty of having a strong opposition). Moreover, minimalistic and prudent view on the Nigerian situation and its future evolution should not determine one to leave aside significant improvements. According to the Harvard Political Review, the elections of 2011 were seen as some of the fairest on the African continent for decades, as compared to the ones in 2007, which were regarded by the international community as a disaster. Elections are clearly not as manipulated as before, and the rise of a new opposition after a long hegemony of the People’s Democratic Party is seen by many as a positive turn in Nigerian domestic politics. In this context, the elections of 2014-2015 are to be perceived as an essential moment in the democratization of Nigeria, as well as many other African countries experiencing similar issues. They will provide a better understanding of the direction in which politics will be conducted. In order to have a progress in democratic terms, both the People’s Democratic Party and the All Progressive’s Congress should understand and prioritize the stakes. Political power and office holding should be perceived primarily, not as a guaranteed access to wealth and resources, but as instrumental for achieving a more stable political regime, with less tensions and equal opportunities, regardless of ethnic origins and religious practices.