Nigeria: Beyond Voting and Rioting - Why Democracy Must Prevail

guest column

After my visit to Nigeria in October 2010 to give public lectures in Abuja and Lagos on elections and democracy, I returned to the United States profoundly concerned about many persistent problems and especially the visible impoverishment of the north.

The recent rioting in that region, ostensibly triggered by the defeat of Muhammadu Buhari in the presidential vote, has deeper causes and wider ramifications. Nigeria's unmet policy challenges require urgent attention.

Nigeria's many infrastructural and socio-economic deficits are widely known. A return to business as usual, assuming the elections for state governors and assemblies are conducted without major disruptions, is hazardous. Designing collaborative projects on governance and development should be high on the agenda of Nigerian federal and state governments and their international partners.

Five years ago, as concerns mounted regarding the ill-prepared 2007 elections, a conference was convened at Northwestern University, Illinois, that included many Nigerian and American experts. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka gave the keynote address. However, there was little official response to this and other similar consultations. Over the past several months, we have seen a very different response. Decisive actions have been taken to prepare for the 2011 elections, including the appointment of Professor Attarihu Jega as head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Positive consequences followed, especially the conduct of much better elections despite inevitable logistical problem and electoral mischief.

Yet, deeper problems remain: the systemic misuse of public office, the failure to develop a productive economy that would generate jobs and reduce poverty, and the inability to deliver basic public goods – electricity, water, transportation, food security and physical security. What these challenges suggest is that even wider popular upheavals may lie ahead. Many Nigerian migrant workers caught in the turmoil in Libya, for example, have requested to be sent elsewhere rather than returned home to join the legions of unemployed.

In its recent Africa strategy paper, the World Bank stated that governance and public sector capacity must be the foundation of collaborative work to promote peace, growth and development on the continent . This observation applies acutely to Nigeria where the tolerance shown by Nigerians toward self-serving and ineffective governments is ending. Elections for state governors and assemblies, now slated for April 26 and 28, are therefore enormously important. It is at this level that the greatest advances in improving public services can be made.

In my 2010 lecture, I stated: "There must arise a broad movement committed to building a bridge that will get Nigeria safely across the turbulent river of political contestation. A pan-Nigerian movement for fair and credible elections must emerge that transcends all political persuasions and sectional divisions." Such a process did take place, alongside the vast improvement in the performance of INEC and the state security services. However, following the presidential vote, the river of peaceful contestation was overwhelmed by anarchic rioting. While leaders vigorously condemned and suppressed it, the warning signals should not be overlooked.

Nigeria needs more efficient, transparent, responsive and accountable governments. Much remains to be done to get federal, state and local governments performing in ways commensurate with the nation's abundant human and material resources. One final electoral bridge remains to be crossed in a country stunned by the tragic loss of lives and property. No effort should be spared to obtain a final round of peaceful and credible elections. Assuming that this formidable hurdle is crossed, substantial public and private investments must be made to bring about a decade of societal transformation and inclusive growth. Perhaps more than at any time in its independent history, the door is open today to vigorous engagement in Nigeria by government, corporate and civic actors - both domestic and external. While the challenges are great, so also are the potential benefits for Nigerians, Africans and the global community.

Richard Joseph is John Evans Professor of International History and Politics at Northwestern University and Nonresident Senior Fellow of The Brookings Institution. He is creating a program on state, governance and development.

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