On April 14, citizens of Africa’s most populous country will go to the polls to elect state governors. One week later they’ll also elect their senators, representatives and a new president. If all goes smoothly, it will mark the first time in Nigeria’s tumultuous history that one democratically elected civilian government has handed over power to another. Rarely on Africa’s long and troubled road to democracy has there been a more important turning point.
With a population of 130 million (one in six Africans is a Nigerian) and one of the continent’s largest and most experienced armies, Nigeria plays an important peacekeeping role in the troubled West African subregion. It also happens to be home to some of the greatest reserves of hydrocarbons outside the Middle East. A key source of oil for Europe and North America for more than forty years, and the site of major operations by oil companies including Shell and Exxon, Nigeria is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Both the United States and Britain–the former colonial power–treat it (along with South Africa) as an anchor of their Africa policy.
Sadly, though, the initial indications regarding the elections have not been promising. President Olusegun Obasanjo, a darling of Western business interests, has appeared reluctant to leave office; last year he attempted, somewhat ham-handedly, to engineer a movement to amend the Constitution’s clause on term limits. The power grab failed, but Obasanjo has left Nigerians in no doubt about his intentions to stage-manage the country from beyond the political grave. At its nominating convention in December, the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chose a relative unknown–Katsina governor Umaru Yar’Adua, a staunch Obasanjo loyalist–as its presidential candidate, bypassing several far more prominent figures in the party. Yar’Adua has insisted he will be his own man, but few believe him.
Nor has Nigeria’s recent experience with elections been particularly encouraging. For much of its turbulent forty-seven-year history as an independent nation, Nigeria has been ruled by a succession of iron-fisted, incompetent and frequently corrupt military juntas. In 1999 constitutional democracy was finally restored. But Nigerians have become dangerously disillusioned with democracy. In 1999 and 2003, elections in many parts of the country were decided by widespread intimidation and threats of violence, with politicians hiring armed militias to bully voters into turning out for them. Thousands of people died in the process.
Then there is corruption. Some thirty-one of Nigeria’s thirty-six state governors are currently under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for financial wrongdoing. The EFCC was created by Obasanjo as a way to demonstrate his seriousness about combating corruption, but critics have grumbled that Obasanjo’s enemies are the only ones investigated.