Nigeria: Crisis of Legitimacy

The flawed elections in Nigeria have the potential to destabilize both the region and the world. Will Nigerians once again demonstrate their incredible national capacity to pull themselves back from the brink?

Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Monday that Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), the winner in last Saturday's presidential election. According to figures released by INEC, Yar'Adua won some 24.6 million votes, some 70 percent of the total, compared to six million for former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigerian People's Party (ANPP) and 2.6 million for Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress (a number of minor candidates rounded up the total).

In the March/April issueof The National Interest, I noted:

If President [Olusegun] Obasanjo peacefully and constitutionally hands over power to an elected successor, he will not only achieve a feat that no other Nigerian leader has ever managed, he will make a significant contribution to regional stability and international security, including the strategic interests of the United States. This would secure America's access to the West African country's important petroleum resources and show that a large Muslim country other than Turkey can make progress along Samuel Huntington's definition of democratic consolidation (two consecutive peaceful changes of government via free elections). If, on the other hand, Nigeria falters or simply comes unglued, it will not be long before the economic, political and military ripples in the River Niger wash ashore on the banks of the Hudson and Potomac.

Alas, the consensus of international and domestic observers is that the presidential and legislative polls last Saturday, as well as the elections for state governors and legislators on April 14, were seriously flawed. Former-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who led the election monitoring group from the National Democratic Institute, declared that the electoral process had "failed the Nigerian people." A Dutch member of the European Parliament, Max van den Berg, who led the European Union's election observers, was even more scathing in his comments: "The 2007 state and federal elections have fallen short of basic international and regional standards for democratic elections and the process cannot be considered to be credible." These sentiments were echoed by Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, who headed the International Republican Institute's election monitoring delegation. At a press conference Sunday in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, Prosper read a statement on behalf of his delegation which characterized the elections as falling "below the standard set by previous Nigerian elections and international standards" and cited a long list of abuses included widespread "underage voting, voter registration list errors, stuffed ballot boxes, group voting, party observers and police instructing individuals on who to vote for, lack of privacy for voting, lack of results sheets and other materials, falsified results sheets, and early closings" of the polls.

Observing the voting in southeastern Benue State, the agricultural breadbasket just north of the oil-rich Niger Delta region, I personally saw police and other officials openly "helping" voters to mark their ballot papers for the ruling PDP. I also found entire areas whose residents professed support for the ANPP, the AC, or other opposition groups, where the polls never even opened, including a township outside of Makurdi that should have had six polling stations to accommodate some five thousand registered voters. Instead, while no polling officials or materials ever arrived, a truckload of police in riot gear did show up to disperse the angry would-be electors. Towards the end of the election day, at a polling station just two blocks from where my colleagues and I were observing the vote tally, armed gunmen shot an election official and made off with the ballot box (nationally, some two hundred people lost their lives to similar poll-related violence). All in all, I cannot help but concur with the judgment offered by the EU's van den Berg when he was asked if the irregularities represented an orchestrated attempt to rig the result: "In several places, yes, and in others, very magic results."

Unfortunately, the last thing Nigeria-and the world-needs at this moment is this type of "magic." Buhari and Atiku (the vice president is generally known by his given name) have already rejected the announced results, the latter calling the poll "the worst election ever seen." While they have not ruled out taking to the streets, both candidates for now limited their announced plans to challenge abuses in court, the judicial remedies may be limited: tribunals may adjudicate electoral disputes, but how can they handle elections which never took place or redress issues like voter intimidation? In fact, Nigeria's largest domestic election monitoring group, the Transition Monitoring Group, a coalition of some sixty civil society organizations which fielded 50,000 poll watchers across the country, has called for a cancellation of the election results. In either case, the truly incredible nature of the results announced-including vote tallies which are reminiscent of the old Soviet bloc (for example, INEC claimed that the ruling PDP won 96 percent of the vote in Delta State, 95 percent in Ebonyi State, 90 percent in Edo State, and 94 percent in Imo State)-will certainly further undermine the already fragile nature of the Nigerian federation.