Nigerian elections in April represent a key opportunity for West Africa’s perennial underachiever to restore some international credibility following much criticised polls of 2007, and to open the door to further international investment. Those in and aspiring to power have increased incentives to hold credible elections this time around. Equally there are now greater disincentives to engage in rigging and violence – the world is watching and seemingly not afraid to act.
Recent changes give some cause for optimism. Adoption of electoral reforms over the last year, compilation of a credible (or meaningful) voter register and relatively peaceful party primaries in January have laid the foundations for credible Presidential, Gubernatorial and National Assembly elections throughout April. But, old habits die hard – responsibility for a positive outcome rests not only with the electoral commission, but in this land of political ‘godfatherism’ also with the candidates – incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and his main rivals Muhammadu Buhari and Nuhu Ribadu.
Incentives to hold a credible election.
It is well understood domestically that these elections are a chance to start repairing our tarnished international image. Nigeria stands at a crossroads in terms of international standing. Its current prospects are, if not stellar then at least moving in the right direction. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council it has pulled its weight, most recently on Libya and an illegal Iranian arms shipment intercepted in Lagos. It has taken the lead as Chair of west African regional body ECOWAS, most notably in the face of difficult circumstances on the Cote d’Ivoire crisis.
Large scale investment awaits if the country can market itself as a credible business partner after April. Our oil wealth has been largely squandered over the last forty years, and although the oil and gas sector is ripe for further investment if further reforms are passed, it remains complex. But, it is in non-oil sectors – power, agriculture, roads – that Nigeria will really benefit from significant foreign investment should the elections go well. Political maturity coupled with greater evidence of fiscal responsibility, will create the right investment environment. And the investors may just be queuing up – international banks are eyeing Nigeria closely, and are reportedly serious about sanctioning big deals if conditions are viewed as favorable.
Massive downside if polls are not free and fair
However, the notion of Nigeria as a mature international actor could quickly evaporate if elections are not up to scratch. The international community is not currently in the mood to sit idly by, and watch countries go to the dogs. Nigeria would be handled far more roughly than, say Cote d’Ivoire in the event of rigging or orchestrated electoral violence due to greater regional and global significance.
Presidential candidates have acknowledged that there are international implications, if things do not go well. As well as lost investment opportunities, Nigeria runs a real risk of regaining international pariah status of the Abacha years – international condemnation, suspension from international organizations, and an end to aspirations of joining the ‘big boys’ in the G20.
Sanctions for bad behavior
The good news for Nigerian voters (and bad news for those who would seek to cling on to power by old methods) is that individuals suspected of involvement in electoral malpractice are now, more than ever, likely to face international consequences for their actions. This might just deter malpractice.
Nigerian politicians are increasingly being called to account internationally for misdeeds. Former Delta state Governor James Ibori is currently in a Dubai jail awaiting extradition to the UK on money laundering charges. Several other high profile politicians close to former Presidents Yar’Adua and Obasanio are reported to be under investigation or, to have been banned from travelling to Europe or the United States. The spoils of victory are less sweet when you no longer have freedom to travel.
Those orchestrating electoral violence may also find a place awaits them in the Hague, as an increasingly confident International Criminal Court asserts itself. The Court has already acted in the case of government ministers and a police chief, alleged to have been responsible for violence following Kenya elections in December 2007. This should serve as a warning to those tempted to slip back into the ‘do or die’ politics of recent elections.