Opinion Piece from a 2015 International Election Observer
What Nigeria's Elections Means for the Country, For Continent; Voters are the election "super heroes;" Unflappable INEC Chairman Jega Nobel Peace Prize-Worthy
Nigeria, over the last year, was known in the news for a few key things summed up in the sentence below:
Africa's biggest economy and most populous country, plagued by corruption, and facing major security challenges in the Northeast prosecuted by the terrorist group Boko Haram.
With its 2015 Presidential Election elections just completed, Nigeria's new summary headline for the foreseeable future is:
A powerhouse nation that can hold credible elections, (albeit isolated irregularities), leading to the over two million vote difference in favor of President-elect Muhammadu Buhari.
The tough-minded Buhari and his scholarly Vice President-elect, Professor Oluyemi Osinbajo, head the coalition-based, All Progressive Congress (APC), which handily dethroned the country's ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which had been in power since the 1999 end of military rule. Osinbajo is from the battleground Southwest where Jonathan and Buhari, competed neck-and-neck. Buhari wholeheartedly took the North where he is seen as the answer to insecurity there. Most election observers in Northern areas walked away thinking Buhari likely had a victory. It was a tighter race in the Southwest/South-South Regions.
The election produced an outcome not known before - an incumbent being soundly defeated, as descried by voters, for two reasons:
-- Electorate's strong desire for change; and, for the defeat of the patronage-based PDP.
Post-election atmosphere still remains calm. The pivotal role of technology, (albeit problematic), to combat fraud and financial shenanigans, for which Nigeria is known, produced this seismic change in Nigerian politics.
INEC Chairman & Voter Profile:
Nigeria's Election Commission, called INEC, and its statesman-like, unflappable (in face of critics), impressive chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, deserves high praise for forethought and the mental gymnastics to introduced a range of nano-steps, micro and macro anti-fraud measures (technical) and tactics (sequencing of processes), which made voting as rig-proof as possible. INEC officials still need more training, and logistics/on-time delivery of materials were real challenges. In the end, the patient voter helped the election succeed.
Although per voter, a series of processing steps happened before one cast a ballot, the sophistication of the Nigerian voter was clearly demonstrated, on top of their sheer patience. This is particularly noteworthy in rural areas, with women and young voters, as many stood in line for 12-15 hours in the sun with no food or water. I saw this first hand; it was both astounding, and heartwarming to see democracy in action. During the vote count, as the sun was waning at polling stations, assembled voters counted ballots in roaring voices along with INEC officials. The entire event was a primer in voter education and mobilization.
President Jonathan's Moment
President Goodluck Jonathan made a pivotal contribution to post-election peace. Although encouraged by ex-Nigerian Presidents, Religious Leaders, and Captains of Industry to do so, President Jonathan, on March 31, 2015, did several magnanimous things rarely seen in African politics:
•He called the new President-elect;
•Spoke to the nation as a conciliatory statesman;
•Accepted defeat in the most gentlemanly manner.
These too are hallmarks of a democracy. By doing so, Jonathan paved the way for another unusual thing in Africa -- a peaceful transition of power, on May 29. Post-election atmosphere could have looked much different if he had not done these democratic things. His actions should be remembered; they were not small acts.
The Buhari Doctrine:
So what is next for the Continent's giant? Addressing insecurity, corruption, energy needs, and poverty connected to the human indicators of education, health, food security, and job creation are the stated governance pillars for the Buhari Government. Buhari has a good circle of immediate advisers around him, many whom I know, and has refashioned himself into today's "democrat." One thing to watch is the length of the honeymoon as expectations are high. This will be up to voters, but at the onset successfully tackling Boko Haram (BH), and playing better with neighbors Niger, Chad, and Cameroon on the BH issue, will help solidify the hope coming out of elections. This includes determining what to do with the 300 plus "reported" South African mercenaries; continue to use/not use in prosecuting the BH offensive.
Buhari was always well known to be a staunch supporter of anti-corruption. He lives modestly, and carried himself equally so (visited his home a couple of occasions while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria; he also attended a meeting for Secretary Clinton at my Abuja U.S. residence). His tenacity in running three times for President reflects his dogged belief in his vision for Nigeria. He will need continued voter support and patience, and assistance from the international community to address endemic corruption.
Next for Nigeria:
Having been in the pro-Nigeria corner, for many years, well before it was fashionable and saying "never count Nigerians out," in their ability to hold credible,, peaceful elections, the next step will be the solidification of this new found respect from doubters. The coup de grace or determinant will be sustainable results from the Buhari-Osinbajo Administration that this hopeful nation is expecting, rather counting on, from this historical win. Buhari has everyone, including me, really routing for him to succeed.
Gubernatorial Elections: Keep Focus.
The April 11, 2015, gubernatorial elections will be another opportunity to consolidate democracy. For non-Nigeria watchers, these elections are equally as important as Nigerian Governors control vast amount of financial resources. INEC must sort out the glitches. Voters, we hope, turnout with the same verve, commitment, and patience. Election observers should be as engaged as before.
When Nigeria's first opposition leader-turned president is sworn-in, Nigerians should be extremely proud of the example they have set for Africa and evolving democracies around the world. They have redefined their future and the nation's direction. I am extremely proud of Nigeria, proud to have represented the U.S. Government there, and honored to have served as an international observer for this historic election. I wish the nation and the President-elect and his team the very best.