Staving Off Nigeria’s Next Train Wreck

Africa’s biggest democracy is pushing ahead with its next election. Here's why that would be a mistake.

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Nigeria is scheduled to hold elections in February 2015. They should be postponed.

The country is heading into these elections with insufficient preparation, extreme tensions, and wracked by Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist insurgency whose murders and kidnappings have shocked the world. Yet there is no national consensus in Nigeria on how to deal with this insurgency, and no one seems prepared to confront it as the national crisis it is. Instead the matter has become deeply politicized, as competing regional factions accuse each other of active complicity with the terrorists.

What outsiders often fail to grasp is that this grim situation is merely the symptom of a deeper malaise: a breakdown of the informal consensus on power sharing between the Muslim north and the Christian south that had guided Nigerian politics for decades. This makes the upcoming contest for the presidency especially fraught, as the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, seeks re-election after six years in power.*

Meanwhile, the army, once a source of national cohesion and pride, has become profoundly corrupt, and in its campaign against Boko Haram it is carrying out human rights violations that nearly rival those of the jihadists in their viciousness and impact on the population. Finally, the rapidly dropping price of oil — which fuels political patronage, serves as the basis of the national budget, and drives foreign exchange earnings — will intensify the competition for both power and access to that resource, while likely worsening poverty for the vast majority of Nigerians.

Elections would normally be the way for a nation to chart a path forward to solutions for these problems. The emergence of two strong contending parties, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressive Congress (APC), augurs well for that outcome.** Much of the current international support for Nigeria is aimed at helping make the approaching elections more credible, in the hope that the country can come together to face its greatest problems once the vote is past.

But a recent delegation of experts sponsored by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute found serious gaps in election preparations. One of the biggest problems: How to ensure voting for the nearly one million people displaced or controlled by Boko Haram in the northeast, an area of likely support for the opposition. The NDI/IRI delegation also reports an influx of arms to areas into volatile areas like the Niger delta, a stronghold of the PDP. (The photo above shows security forces at an APC rally in Kaduna on Jan. 19.)

All this points to the likelihood of fraud, contention, and violence in the wake of the election no matter who wins. The country will not break apart, but large parts of it may become ungovernable, and the depredations of Boko Haram and perhaps other militias will increase. Nigeria’s National Security Advisor Sambo Dasuki recently called for a postponement of the election in order to address some of these administrative problems.

But his proposal did not address the broader issues described above, nor had he reached out to the opposition. Not surprisingly, the opposition party, suspicious of any effort by the administration to extend its time in power, strongly rejected the proposal. What is needed is something more fundamental.

Rather than proceeding straight into this train wreck, Nigeria should stop and create a temporary government of national unity (GNU). The Council of State, made up of the president, former heads of state, Supreme Court judges, and others, may be the right vehicle to nominate the members of a GNU, who should come not only from the political elite but also from business and religious communities. The GNU should be kept to one year with a limited agenda. The GNU should chart a clear, united policy toward Boko Haram that is above party politics, and commit to a program of development that reaches the exceptionally underdeveloped north where the insurgency lives off disenchanted youth and others in poverty. It should restructure the security services, and prepare for an election no farther than a year hence in which the rules of the game are clearer.

The international community, which wants to see both peaceful elections and more forceful action against Boko Haram, should support an agreement for a postponement along these lines. International backing should be provided to the GNU emphasizing its important but limited agenda, its adherence to a strict time limit, and steps taken leading to a truly effective election. Arguing instead for keeping to the present timetable may well lead to disaster.

It is hard for me to recommend this course of action. I am on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, which supports the growth of democracy worldwide and consistently champions free and fair elections. I have long been an advocate of electoral reform and the importance of credible elections as a means not only of strengthening Nigerians’ commitment to democracy but also of promoting greater accountability in their oil-based economy.

I am no fan of governments of national unity. While perhaps helpful in defusing an imminent crisis, such governments often simply void the outcome of democratic elections, disillusioning voters who have sometimes risked their lives to exercise their rights. In this case, of course, it would delay the exercise of those rights, postponing the competition of ideas and leaders on which the electorate should have the right to decide.

But the political system in Nigeria today is dysfunctional, and this reality, combined with the breakdown of law and order in the northeast, is taking the country down. It is time for leaders from all walks of life to step forward and change this direction. A government of national unity is not a perfect solution, and creating and implementing it is likely to prove challenging. But right now it offers the best way of avoiding an impending implosion. And who knows, it might just bring out the best of Nigerian leadership along the way.

*Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: This sentence originally misstated the region of President Goodluck Jonathan’s birth. He was born in Bayelsa state, which is in the country’s south, not southeast. (Return to reading.)

**Correction, Jan. 28, 2015: Due to an editing error, this sentence originally implied that both political parties have existed for some time. In fact, the emergence of the APC is a recent development. (Return to reading.)

Photo credit: FLORIAN PLAUCHEUR/AFP/Getty Images

Princeton N. Lyman is Senior Adviser to the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria 1986-89, to South Africa 1992-1995, and U.S. Special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan 2001-2013.