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The Largest Democratic Event In African History: Postponed

With 84 million people expected to cast ballots, this will be Africa’s largest democratic event ever.  Yet it remains to be seen exactly how democratic it will be.

On Saturday, February 16th, Nigeria was scheduled to hold its presidential election. The Economist stated that it would be “the largest democratic event in the history of Africa” with over 84 million people expected to vote.  The anticipation had been building for months, as international organizations and other nation states had warned about the possibility of violence and voting irregularities.  Yet, the election did not happen on Saturday.  Instead, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) postponed the election a mere five hours before polls were scheduled to open.  The election commission claims that several logistical challenges required a delay in the election, such as the shortage of ballot material.

The announcement of the postponement was met with confusion and anger, especially among the many people who had traveled far from their rural hometowns to city centers to vote. Some people even slept overnight in polling stations. Practicing their democratic right required a lot of planning, which they will have to do all over again when the election finally occurs.

Several of the election commission offices were set on fire following the announcement.

Nigeria is no stranger to electoral irregularities. The federal government, led by President Muhammud Buhari, has, in the past several months, left Nigerians and the international community nervous about the legitimacy of this election. On January 25th, Buhari suspended Walter Onnoghen, the Chief Justice of Nigeria and the highest judicial authority in the country.  Onnoghen has presided over electoral disputes in the past, including cases that involve vote-rigging and violence.  His suspension was labeled “an act of dictatorship” by Buhari’s main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, and drew concern from the international community.

In late 2018, international organizations and nation states observed governor elections in Osun state in south-western Nigeria, and witnessed a number of voting irregularities.  A US-led team of election observers reported widespread use of voter intimidation and suppression, while observers from the European Union described harassment from party officials.  This occured against a backdrop of a large anti-corruption discourse in the country.  Although President Buhari ran on an anti-corruption platform, many view him as the most corrupt president in Nigerian history. They fear that this type of leadership will stifle the democratic process.

Buhari, second from right, has faced accusations of corruption from opponents. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to corruption, opponents of Buhari’s administration point to a slew of crises that have further weakened the president’s credibility. While running on a strong economic and security platform, these are the issue that have deteriorated since Buhari took office. Boko Haram, the terrorist organization who gained notoriety in 2014 for kidnapping over 200 school girls, continues to wage war in the Northeast of the country.  Last month an estimated 30,000 people fled into neighboring Cameroon following a new wave of attacks.

In the middle belt of Nigeria, the Farmer-Herder conflict has continued for nearly a decade, leaving over 10,000 dead as cattle herders and farmers violently compete over fertile land that is diminishing every day due to climate change.

In the south, oil conflict continues to be unresolved. Multinational oil companies leave land polluted beyond use and communities desolate.  Militants in the south threaten a resurgence of violence if the winner of the election does not bring change to their communities. Some threaten to “cripple” the economy by attacking oil infrastructure should Buhari remain president.

In addition to these violent conflicts, Nigeria has been slowly recovering from a recession. As Africa’s largest economy, this causes great international concern. It has been the country’s worst recession in 30 years, and some say the recovery has been too slow.

Buhari’s main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, is the candidate for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Atiku blames Buhari for Saturday’s postponement, accusing him of ordering it to suppress voter turnout. Buhari, who claims disapproval of the delay, urges for calm and patience among the electorate, cautious of inciting violence.

Democracy does not have a long history in Nigeria. Many previous heads of state of Nigeria have come to power through military force.  In 2015, Goodluck Jonathan became the only sitting Nigerian head of state to admit defeat and succeed to an elected winner.  This history and the turbulent state the country is in, creates conditions easily susceptible to voter manipulation.

All eyes remain on Nigeria for this upcoming election, now rescheduled for Saturday, February 23rd.  The way in which the election is conducted, and not who ultimately prevails, has wide implications for global democracy.  With 84 million people expected to cast ballots, this will be Africa’s largest democratic event ever.  But it remains to be seen exactly how democratic it will be.

Michael Jarrell

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