On April 16, The Federal republic of Nigeria held the most credible presidential elections in its history. Its democracy starts back in 1999 after the fall of the military rule, but previous elections were a debacle marked by ballot-rigging, intimidation, corruption and violence across the country. This time around, and despite the eruption of some violent protests particularly in the north of the country, Africa’s largest democracy (73.5 milion voters) has begun the ride to reach free and fair elections.
How to improve the elections in order to reach better democracy standards
The main agent of democracy in Nigeria, the Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), introduced many changes since the last presidential elections in 2007 in the effort to improve its bad reputation by establishing new voting procedures in order to avoid any possibility of fraud.
This time, the counting of ballots was done on the site of the polling stations in order to avoid missing ballot boxes, and voters were encouraged to stay after the voting and observe the process. Most voting booths opened for only an hour with the aim of preventing multiple voting, and independent monitors collected the results instantaneously using mobile phones.
Furthermore, the INEC tried to reach voters using new techonlogies, such as Twiter, Facebook and BBpin.
Civil society groups played an important role in the elections’ process. To do so, they used technology to monitor the polls, map the results and record allegations of misconduct. They also payed special attention to the mobilization of young people to participate in the elections. One example is the Nigeria Election Coalition, which offers a wide range of information on its website and provides a service to report any incident that occurrs as well as sending the elections’ results by text message, a system similar to the one offered by the INEC. This is important considering that nearly one third of the population has access to the internet, which is the highest rate in the region.
One of the most innovative and expensive changes – the government has set a record for a public spending on elections of $580 milion – was the new voting system. Under the slogan ‘One man, one vote only!’, the voting system consisted of an accurate combination of technology in which voters were screened and fingerprinted in order to prevent the duplication of votes.
The ethnic and religious differences that mark the political battleground
All these changes resulted in the re-election of the incumbent Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in the presidential poll, who has been in power since 2010 after the death of his predecesor Umaru Yar’Adua. Member of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – which has won all the elections since 1999 –, Jonathan recived 22,495,187 votes (58.89%) but failed to win a single one of the 12 northernmost states, out of Nigeria’s total of 36 (in order to win, a candidate needs at least 25% of the votes in 24 states and a majority of the total votes cast). These results expose the ethnic and religious division in a country of 152 milion people.
At this point, it is necessary to highlight that Nigeria is divided in two main religious parts. While the north is largely Muslim, the southeastern regions are predominantly Christian, and there are large numbers of both in the Middle Belt, including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
But the country is furthermore divided into some 250 different ethnic groups and the rivalry between the north and the south is such, that there exists an informal agreement according to which the presidency should rotate between the country’s mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south every two terms (although this does not correspond to democratic standards it was a common practice). Precisely because of this informal agreement the riots broke out in the muslim north after Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was proclaimed President; the agreement has fallen since, in theory, it was the turn of northerners to hold the presidency in 2011, which did not happen this time. General Muhammadu Buhari, member of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), who got less than a quarter of the votes in the 20 southern states, has claimed that the Nigerian election commission’s computers were programmed to disadvantage his party in some parts of the country.
The Nigerian election system is a zero-sum game in which the winner takes it all. The violent protests that occurred show that northerners are only too aware of this fact.
The numbers speak for themselves: the Red Cross announced four days after the elections that the number of displaced people had increased from 16,000 to 48,000, mainly in the north. In the southern state of Anambra, 8,400 people sought refuge at the Onitsha military barracks because they feared reprisal attacks against northerners. The head of the Rights Congress reported that the death toll was over 200 victims and added that more than 1,000 people had been arrested in the city of Kaduna alone.
The economic gap between north and south exacerbates ethnic and religious tensions
The former British colony is the 12th largest producer of oil in the world and the 8th largest exporter, and has the 10th largest proven reserves. Oil plays a large role in the Nigerian economy, accounting for 40% of GDP and 80% of Government earnings. However, the industry has provoked unwanted side effects, driven by the trade of stolen oil, such as the violence and corruption in the Niger river delta.
Despite selling about two million barrels of oil per day, there is very little to show for it in terms of development: the majority of Nigerians still live below the poverty line and infrastructural development seems almost non-existent.
Nigeria is faced by a number of societal issues primarily due to a history of inefficiency in its governance. Over the past few decades its population has grown rapidly and Nigerians have been getting poorer. And along with this, the failure of the state to provide adequate education for the vast majority of the population has produced a frustrated and angry underclass of largely urban, unemployed youths. Moreover, the north is far behind the south in terms of development, education and job opportunities (issues often promised by the politicians who then fail to deliver), for instance, much of the anger being expressed by the young men rioting in northern cities comes down to frustration.
Successful elections despite the post-voting violence?
How can elections in Nigeria be declared as a “great success” with such high levels of violence? Elections in Nigeria tend to be about ethnicity, religion and regionalism, not issues. Better elections should in the end help to improve Nigeria’s gap between the north and the south. Violence has not been present only during the elections, and at their root, these differences are not cultural or religious, but rather economic. Experts believe that clashes among civilians are created and stoked by politicians to get a political benefit out of social division.
A step forward towards free and fair elections in Nigeria has been taken. Nonetheless, Africa’s largest democracy has still a long way to take over regional leadership. Nigeria should first improve its economy and fight corruption in order to curtail the gap between the north and the south.
This is a nonprofit explanation