Fifty years after independence, Africa's most populous nation is at a crossroad – heading towards an election that can either empower a reform-minded public or entrench a system that has failed the people.
Nigeria's current president assumed office after months of administrative drift during the illness of his predecessor. The October 1 bombings that killed at least eight people during the 50th anniversary celebrations in the capital, Abuja, have further heightened national anxiety about the future of the oil-rich country.
A vote scheduled for early next year will elect a president, more than 30 governors and 469 members of the national legislature. Under an informal power-sharing agreement in the dominant political party, the presidency has alternated between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south.
But the death in office of President Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north, who succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, has threatened the prevailing political arrangement. When the southern Christian vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, became president in May, only three years into Yar'Adua's expected eight-year rule, he was "out of turn" according to the established order. Furthermore, President Jonathan has announced his intention to contest the upcoming election.
Nigeria's international allies have tended to endorse the north/south alternation as the glue that has held the country together. Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, warned that "the end of a power-sharing arrangement between the Muslim North and the Christian South, as now seems likely, could lead to post - election sectarian violence, paralysis of the executive branch, and even a coup."
On the other hand, many Nigerians are questioning whether the formula has become an excuse for dividing the spoils of office among an elite, while the country's economic and social problems mount. Nasir el Rufai, former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, argues this point in an article published on AllAfrica.com earlier this year.
"Simplistic analysis of the reasons for Nigeria's problems of governance – that Christians are at odds with Muslims, the North with the South – has distracted the world's attention from what many Nigerians believe is the principal threat facing our country: the disenfranchised youth, a government that lacks competency and credibility and a sense of hopelessness and despair about the future," he said. "Nigeria needs a government accountable to its people that would invest billions of dollars of oil monies in power generation, roads, healthcare and the like; a government that would give Nigerian youth a channel for their genius – high-caliber universities and meaningful jobs."
Another proponent of change is Nuhu Ribadu, a respected anti-corruption crusader and former head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria. In August, Ribadu returned to Nigeria, which he had fled after two attempts on his life. Last month he announced his intention to run for the presidency on the Action Congress of Nigeria ticket. He hopes to model his campaign on an Obama-like appeal to the nation's youth, who comprise more than 65 percent of the population.
Visiting Nigeria a year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the growing movement for reform. "The lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence and reject the authority of the state," she said in a speech. "Without good governance, no amount of oil or no amount of aid, no amount of effort can guarantee Nigeria's success."
Good governance demands that Nigeria's resources contribute to general welfare. The nation's allies should promote policies and programs that strengthen the voices for meaningful democracy. This "demand driven" accountability – with its dividend of good governance – is vital to the future of Nigeria.
How can that change come about, and what can the United States do?
First, it can throw its support behind a free and fair election. The United States should make it clear that it will not recognize a government that emerges from a corrupted process, such as that of Nigeria in 2007, or those in Kenya and Zimbabwe in 2008. The U.S. government can press the African Union and the European Union to take similar positions.
Second, Nigeria's voter roll must be tackled. A fair election starts with the preparation of an accurate roll. The plan of the election commission to deploy 120,000 voting machines and train 360,000 personnel appears unachievable. Although Attahiru Jega, chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission, seems truly committed to holding a free and fair election, he is challenged by weak staff capacity. This is why he is – correctly in our view – calling for the January vote to be pushed as far back as April.
Third, technologies that utilize the millions of cell phones, along with expanding Internet access, must be used, as has been done effectively in other places. For example, the U.S. National Democratic Institute helped to mobilize a preliminary vote tabulation in Ghana through SMS messaging. Some 4,000 civil society operatives played an essential role in validating and winning public acceptance of Ghana's 2009 election, won by a small margin. Kenya's Ushahidi online crisis-response platform allows the gathering and presentation of data via SMS, email or the web. A new Nigerian initiative called Pay4me – a payment transaction via the Internet – could permit a Nigerian to contribute to a political party, however small the amount.
Fourth, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom should pay for credible polling to be conducted in regular intervals preceding elections. Polling allows the public to learn what their neighbors think about the candidates, the parties and their platforms; helps parties gauge their strong and weak areas; and can reduce challenges to the results.
Finally, support for civil society should be expanded and sustained. Programs should particularly target vulnerable populations, such as women and girls. Voters need to understand what governments can do for them and what citizens have a right to demand.
With economic growth so unevenly distributed and rage mounting in areas like the oil-rich Niger Delta – whose militants claimed credit for the independence-day bombings – Nigeria's friends should reject the notion that the status quo is synonymous with stability. We must ask the question – stability on whose terms and at what cost?
Our bet should be placed with the people of Nigeria.
K. Riva Levinson is Managing Director of KRL International, a consultancy dedicated to emerging markets. She has worked on Africa issues for more than 20 years. Gregory Simpkins, an international development specialist, is founder of the African Democracy Network and currently advises the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation