In 2015, for the first time in 55 years, Nigerians changed their rulers through a democratic election.
The incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party accepted defeat at the polls and handed over graciously to Muhammadu Buhari, who had earlier headed a military junta.
It was a moment of joyous optimism, and not only in Nigeria. That oil-rich country has Africa’s largest economy and its largest population. If Nigeria could embrace the rule of law and free elections, the future for Africa seemed much brighter.
Sadly, it was not to last. In the subsequent election held last month, Buhari refused to return the courtesy. His government had pursued a kind of throwback 1970s African socialism, complete with import substitution, credit controls, crazy banking restrictions and, in consequence, widespread nepotism. Nigerians wanted a new government, and they had reason to expect one. Opinion polls showed the PDP under its new presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar comfortably ahead.
When the moment came, though, the Buhari regime engaged in a degree of falsification and voter intimidation that caught everyone by surprise. We are not talking about the odd disputed count or about quarrels over who was registered to vote. Such things happen in many elections, not just in Africa. We are talking, rather, about the massive and systematic repression of the vote in opposition areas and its artificial inflation in government areas.
To give a sense of the scale, consider these numbers. In the southern state of Akwa Ibom, a PDP stronghold where there had been a large increase in voter registration since 2015, we are asked to believe there was a 62 percent drop in turnout. By contrast, in the northern state of Borno, which backed by Buhari, the participation rate increased by 82 percent. That figure would be implausible enough at any time. But when we bear in mind that Borno is where the Boko Haram violence has been concentrated, it looks downright preposterous.
You might shrug your shoulders at all this. Nigeria is hardly the first country to rig an election. At the end of last year, for example, the Democratic Republic of Congo held an even more flagrantly bogus election. Although international observers agreed that the election had been stolen, and other countries initially held off from recognizing the new DRC government, South Africa eventually decided to go along with the outcome, followed by the United States and the rest of the international community. Tough on the denizens of that wretched kleptocracy, but there we are.
In Nigeria, the situation is more nuanced. Although election observers recorded spectacular violations, including instances of intimidation by soldiers, the African Union declared that the result was probably accurate, as did the EU. In terms of the ballots physically cast on the day, this may be true, though the PDP disputes it. But when we consider the voter coercion in advance of the poll — to say nothing of the last-minute switch in the date, which prevented many from voting — it is unbelievable.
Why should we care? Because democracy is a boon in itself. Allowing people to replace their rulers peacefully is the surest guarantee against tyranny, misery, and the organized looting of a state by its elites.
If the largest election in Africa can be stolen with the acceptance of the outside world, it sets back the cause of representative government everywhere. To put it another way, if we don’t stand by due process in Nigeria, what will the leaders of Russia and Turkey conclude?
The United States is hardly going to blockade Nigeria over a dodgy election. So what, practically, could make a difference? One thing above all: The United States, and the international community in general, can defend the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary. A few weeks before the poll, Nigeria’s chief justice was sacked and replaced with someone thought to be more amenable to Buhari. This is the most dangerous aspect of the whole business, and it is here that friendly countries should take their stand.
The opposition is challenging the election in court hoping that, as in Kenya in 2017, the violations will be overturned by judicial process. The United States and its allies should not take sides between Nigeria’s factions, but they should side unhesitatingly with the rule of law.
They should make clear that they regard the intimidation of judges as unacceptable and that politicians and officials involved in flouting judicial independence will face travel bans and personal sanctions, the same way corrupt Venezuelans and Russians do. Nigerians deserve as much support as the peoples of those unhappy countries. The world should not let them down