A Bellwether for African Democracy: Nigeria Goes to the Polls

(Bloomberg) -- When Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday, there’ll be much more at stake than the presidency and seats in the parliament of Africa’s most populous nation.

Democracy is on the back foot in Africa, and a credible and widely accepted outcome will go some way toward offsetting negative perceptions of the world’s poorest continent. While most Nigerian elections since military rule ended in 1999 concluded acrimoniously, the last contest four years ago saw the first-ever transfer of power to the opposition via the ballot box and was hailed as a watershed moment for the nation’s almost 200 million people.

“The significance of the Nigerian elections for Africa is tremendous,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. “A flawed election and the political instability that this could generate would not only undermine confidence in the feasibility of democracy in one of Africa’s most important states, but also slow economic growth in West Africa and the wider region.”

Recent setbacks in Africa include disputed votes in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, an attempted coup in Gabon and the violent suppression of anti-government protests in Sudan and Zimbabwe.

A study Cheeseman did of 44 African nations showed almost every criterion used to evaluate the state of democracy slipped between 2015 and 2017. Many states pay lip service to staging elections, but have made little headway in giving their citizens a real stake in their economies, he said.

The legitimacy of Nigeria’s election has already been called into question by President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to suspend the chief justice for allegedly failing to declare his assets correctly, just weeks before the vote. The Supreme Court may have to rule on disputes in the vote, which is widely seen as a tight two-horse race between the 76-year-old Buhari, a one-time military ruler, and Atiku Abubakar, 72, a wealthy businessman and former vice president.

In a nationally televised speech Thursday, Buhari said his government is committed “to the conduct of free and fair elections in a safe and peaceful atmosphere.”

Read QuickTake on what’s at stake in Nigeria’s elections
Repressive African governments are facing little international pressure because global powers are preoccupied with the U.S. trade war with China, the U.K.’s exit from the European Union and Venezuela’s political crisis, according to Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs.

“They are aware that the rest of the world is busy with bigger issues,” Mbeki said. “In Africa, things are most likely to get worse before they get better.”

Autocratic Governments

Half the 44 nations evaluated by Cheeseman, who analyzed the results of a transformation index compiled by German research institute Bertelsmann Stiftung, have autocratic governments. Mauritius and Botswana were the only two classified as consolidating democracies, while South Africa, which has an election in May, and Kenya were among 15 considered “defective democracies.” Nigeria was described as a “highly defective democracy.”

An analysis of data from 35 independent sources by a foundation started by Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim paints a somewhat rosier picture.

A Bellwether for African Democracy: Nigeria Goes to the Polls

It showed an overall African governance index reaching a decade-high in 2017, with 34 of the 54 countries registering gains since 2008. But another index that measured sustainable economic opportunities on the continent barely changed over the period, despite a 40 percent surge in the region’s gross domestic product.

“Old institutions that have remained undemocratic need to be reformed and the political space needs to be opened for people to participate meaningfully,” said Ntsikelelo Breakfast, a lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch’s School of Security and African Studies. “That could take a long time, depending on how long the political elite continue ignoring the growing voices of discontent.”

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