Seven Questions: Is Nigerian Democracy Alive, Well, and Kicking?
There’s a saying: As goes Nigeria, so goes Africa. If this weekend’s flawed and violent presidential elections are any indicator, that’s a bad sign for the world’s poorest continent. But Walter Carrington, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, tells FP that the country’s political turmoil is neither as unpredictable nor as contagious as you might think.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty ImagesThe new boss: Same as the old boss?
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty ImagesThe new boss: Same as the old boss?
FOREIGN POLICY: Nigerias elections this weekend marked a historic transfer of power from civilian to civilian. Why else will this election be seen as historic?
Walter Carrington: When one talks about a transfer of power from one civilian government to another, I think it sets the bar low. The question [is really] how much of a transfer this will be, if it turns out that the elections were as rigged as the observer missions seem to think they were. Because of all the disputes over the election, it looks as if its just a real continuation of the same, considering the fact that [outgoing President Olusegun] Obasanjo is now the leader of the party for life. And the question is how much leeway [President-elect Umaru] YarAdua will have in a situation where the party is claiming that loyalty to it is more important than the constitutional responsibilities of the president.
FP: How do you think Obasanjos eight years in power are going to be remembered?
WC: In foreign policy, he ought to be ranked extremely high. The problem is that many Nigerians feel that attention to domestic issues was somewhat sacrificed because of his interest in foreign affairs. But theres no question that hes been a real force internationally, on the African continent, for the end of military rule, against coups and with his work in the African Union. I think he deserves extremely high marks for that. On domestic issues, in the beginning, he made some very bold steps in terms of removing from office those people who had been politically active as members of the military during the Sani Abacha military regime. So he shook up the military and made the possibility of a military coup much less than it would have been before. He made some attempts to get strong legislation passed against corruption. I think those accomplishments would rank very high. Now, there is some question as to how effective the anticorruption measures have been. But at least he was the first head of state (at least since the [Muhammadu] Buhari military regime) to make anticorruption a major interest.
FP: Do you think this election is a step forward or backward?
WC: The holding of the election certainly is a step forward. But the way in which it was conducted could be seen as a step backward in the sense that it has discredited democracy; it has made many people in the country rather dubious as to whether or not [it] is possible to have a fair election where an opposition candidate can win. Important were the gubernatorial elections, which took place a week earlier than the presidential elections. Those were, by all evidence, extremely rigged. There were all kinds of credible allegations that there had been stuffing of the ballots, intimidation, all kinds of things that make it pretty evident that results in a number of states where the elections were held were simply not credible. And unless there is some way to hold elections again in some of those states, I think its going to lead to long-term unrest.
FP: How do you think Nigerians are going to react to this blow to the credibility of their democracy?
WC: Thats the big question, whether there are likely to be large-scale demonstrations. That hasnt been the Nigerian pattern in the past. There will be attempts to go to the courts. The opposition is asking the Senate and the National Assembly to cancel the elections and hold new ones, but I think that is not likely to happen. So if the results stand as they are, that is, if the courts arent able to call for a rerun of elections at least in some of the states, then I think YarAdua is going to have a real crisis on his hands. Which I think is unfortunate, because YarAdua is a very competent person who, as governor of his state, showed that he was probably one of the most honest governors in the country.
I think hes got the personal ability [to run the country]. The question is how hobbled he will be by the actions of his party, how many fires hes going to have to put out in terms of unhappiness and unrest in some of the states if gubernatorial elections are not reheld in some of the ones where the most grievous examples of rigging took place.
FP: Do you think that these disruptions have the potential to dampen democratic processes throughout the continent?
WC: No, I dont think so. Each country really has its own traditions, its own problems. So I dont think Nigeria is going to affect them in that way. On the other hand, ifas the Nigerian government claims[the countrys elections] ought to be judged by the standards of the developing world and not by the standards of the West, these elections still really fall short. In 1993, elections were held that were declared by observers to be the freest and fairest in the countrys history. The elections that brought Obasanjo to power in 1999 were a lot freer and fairer than these. And even the elections in 2003, as flawed as they were, were fairer than these.
FP: What are the warning signs that international observers and the media ought to pay attention to in the run up to fragile elections such as this one?
WC: Before the elections, you have to look and see whether or not there have been attempts by the government to use its power to impede the ability of leading opposition candidates to mount campaigns. Observers and the media tend to concentrate on the elections themselves. They see whether the votes were counted correctly. Thats very important, but the antecedents are just as important. You really have to look at what has happened leading up to the elections: How fair was the nomination process in the parties? How free were the parties to campaign? What kinds of unfair tactics did the government use to try to besmirch the names of the opponents by using the power of the government to go after them with selective prosecution? This doesnt just apply to Nigeria. It applies to all countries where elections monitoring is going on. In this case, you had a double-whammy: You had both the hobbling of the opposition before the election, and the actual rigging of the election itself.
FP: So when Obasanjo remarks, as he did this week, that Nigerian democracy is Alive . . . well, and kicking, what do you make of that statement?
WC: Well, the question would be, whom is he kicking? I think the majority of Nigerians do not think the countrys democracy is well and kicking, as evidenced by the elections. If a major measurement of democracy is the ability of the people to freely and fairly express at the polls their desire as to who should govern them, then there is a great pall over this election. Local election observers, international election observers, all have said that there were tremendous problems and that these elections were not free and fair. Its going to be difficult to persuade the outside world that things are running smoothly in terms of democracy in the country right now.
Walter Carrington was the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 1993 to 1997. He is Warburg professor in international relations at Simmons College.
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