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Nigeria's Elections Do Not a Democracy Make

by Ambassador John Campbell

Nigeria is the giant of Africa. Depending on the price of oil, it has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy, and UN agencies estimate that its population will reach 450 million by mid-century, displacing the United States as the third most populous country in the world. Nigeria is active diplomatically in international fora such as the UN and the World Trade Organization, and the scope of its diplomatic representation is comparable to that of the United States. Nigeria’s bilateral relations with the United States have been close and productive on African issues of mutual concern. With Nollywood—Africa’s largest film industry—and numerous artists and intellectuals of world stature, Nigeria has considerable soft power in Africa. Hence, the success or failure of its democracy influences the continent as a whole. For such reasons and more, Nigeria’s democratic trajectory and overall stability are in the national interest of the United States.

A bargain between the Nigerian military and civilian elites resulted in the restoration of civilian governance in 1999 after a generation of military rule. With their resumption, elections have become important to the competing and cooperating elites (now including senior military officers) who run Nigeria. Elections reaffirm their government’s legitimacy in their own eyes, that of other Nigerians who vote and foreign governments.

However, what Nigeria’s elections have in form, they lack in democratic substance. By and large, the nation’s elections are not about Nigerians making a choice among candidates. Instead, these elections are more often a contest between elite networks. Nigerian society is still largely organized by patron and client relationships, and voters cast their ballots as their patrons direct. Extreme poverty—which is on the rise in Nigeria—also provides a bevy of people willing to vote the way someone tells them in exchange for cash; truly independent voters are rare.

Elites also present elections to Nigeria’s international partners as evidence that the country is becoming a modern democracy, opening for them the possibility of a personal role on the larger world stage. Hence, national elections have been held regularly every four years, in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019.

The logistical quality of Nigerian elections has been generally poor. The elections of 1999 were so bad that President Jimmy Carter, an election observer, left the country rather than be seen to endorse them. The worst ever were those of 2007, when I was the U.S. Ambassador, with chaos, violence and wholesale rigging. But those elections resulted in the country’s first genuinely civilian president since the end of military rule, Umaru Yar’Adua. (His predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, though the country’s first nominally civilian leader, had governed in the style of a military head of state.) The subsequent elections of 2011 were characterized by exceptionally high levels of violence. In their aftermath, domestic and international pressure resulted in the introduction of some reforms in election procedures.

The elections of 2015 were a positive turning point. Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, who conceded, marking the first time in the country’s history that the opposition came into the presidency ostensibly via the ballot box. At the time, foreign observers attributed the better elections of 2015 to reforms led by Attiharu Jega, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), as well as to a maturing of the Nigerian electorate. In fact, however, the outcome probably reflected the exceptional unity among the country’s elites that Jonathan had to go, largely because of his failure to end the security threat of Boko Haram and the corruption of people around him. With Jonathan out, Buhari was their only credible alternative.

The expectation among Nigeria’s foreign friends was that the elections of 2019 would continue the positive trajectory of those of 2015. That may have contributed to the lower levels of international engagement by the European Union as well as the United States. Civic education of the Nigerian voter continued. There were numerous improvements in the voter registration process. Domestic and foreign election observers were deployed. On Election Day 2019, domestic and international observers expected that the race would be very close. Yet, incumbent President Buhari apparently defeated challenger and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar (“Atiku”) by almost 4 million votes, 15,191,847 to 11,262,978. The technical quality of the elections appears to have been significantly worse than those of 2015, and the number killed in election-related violence now approaches that of 2011. What happened?

Both major political parties—Buhari’s All Progressives Alliance (APC) and Atiku’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)—appear to have been involved in competitive rigging, but the APC had the advantage of incumbency, including control of the election process and the security services. In the past, rigging was often crude, including ballot box stuffing or destruction. Now, it is more sophisticated. The ruling party used the security services, especially the army, to intimidate voters away from the polls in areas known to favor Atiku. Vote buying by both parties has accelerated. The process by which vote totals are collated takes place at night far from the view of outside observers and facilitates rigging. Such rigging is less obvious to foreign election observers than the polling place intimidation through violence characteristic of earlier elections. Finally, the postponement of the elections for one week with only five hours’ notice also cut voter turnout. Nigerians often vote in their home village, but work elsewhere; many could not remain away from work for a week or afford to make the trip there and back again.

Voter participation has declined ever since 1999, when 58 million registered and more than 30 million voted. In 2019, 80 million registered, 72 million picked up a voter card—required to cast a vote—but only 28 million actually voted. That low number probably reflects voter suppression and the election delay, as well as popular disenchantment with elections driven by the failure of successive elected administrations to address Nigeria’s problems in a meaningful way.

It remains to be seen if polling data will confirm a decay in popular support for democracy as a political system. Nigerian civil society has thus far been remarkably quiet about this round of election irregularities. But Nigeria is a huge country with poor internal communications; the extent of vote irregularities is only now becoming known. Court challenges to the elections outcome have only just started. The fact that election results can be challenged in the courts probably defused potential violence by Atiku Abubakar’s supporters.

But perhaps more important, voters may also be politically apathetic. Ethnic and religious identities are stronger than national identity among most voters. By tradition, the presidency alternates every eight years between the predominately Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, an arrangement designed to reduce election-related violence based on ethnic and religious identities. Campaigns are based on personality and ethnic and religious alliances, rather than political issues. In 2019, it was still the north’s turn, and both Buhari and Atiku are Muslim, and Fulani is from the north. Furthermore, both are septuagenarians in a country where the majority of voters are thirty-five years old or less. A contest between two elderly northern Muslims may have been of little interest, especially among Christians in the south where turnout was only 20 percent.

Official U.S. policy after 1999 has been to provide financial and other support for the election process. That appears to be based on the assumption that Nigerian elections have a democratic character and at base are similar to those in other democratic countries. Even when the shortcomings of Nigeria’s elections were apparent, successive Washington administrations have looked the other way. In 1999, from Washington’s perspective, the elections were good enough because they ended overt military rule. In 2007, Washington’s criticism was muted because of the importance of the Nigerian political partnership with President Olusegun Obasanjo, who sponsored Umaru Yar’Adua, and also because Nigerians by and large accepted the results. The same was largely true in 2011 and again in 2019. The exception was 2015.

In 2015, the stakes for Washington were the highest they had ever been. The Jonathan administration was responding poorly to the challenge of Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency in northeastern Nigeria. Corruption, always a major problem, appeared to be increasing. And finally, there was the terrible warning of sectarian-based, post-election violence in 2011. These factors energized Washington to an unusual extent in support of the elections process. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Nigeria several times, and President Barack Obama personally was publicly and privately involved.

The United States’ engagement in the 2019 elections came late. President Trump had no personal involvement. Nevertheless, financial support for the election process continued. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued public statements in support of elections and spoke with the candidates by phone. The Trump administration made it clear that election irregularities and violence would lead to the denial or cancellation of U.S. visas for perpetrators, a potent warning to Nigerian elites who enjoy visits to Disney Land and Rodeo Drive. The National Democratic Institute and the Independent Republican Institute fielded an observer mission, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition, the European Union, the Commonwealth of Nations, and the African Union also fielded missions. How much foreign observers see or understand about Nigerian elections is debatable, but their presence provides some cover for domestic Nigerian civil observers.

Since 1999, Washington’s approach to elections has been based on a recognition of Nigeria’s importance and the perhaps unexamined assumption that elections are a manifestation of the country’s emerging democratic political economy. The first conclusion is certainly correct. The second, however, conflates the form of Nigerian elections with the substance of democracy. It also overlooks the importance of elections to elites’ consolidation of their power and position and exaggerates elections’ importance to regular Nigerians. Advancement of genuine democracy in Nigeria would benefit from less U.S. focus on elections and more on the rule of law and the strengthening of Nigerian civil society organizations. A more forthright U.S. condemnation of human rights abuses by Nigeria’s security services would also encourage and thereby strengthen those elements of Nigerian society that are working for genuine democratic governance.


Ambassador John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.


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