If governing Nigeria were easy, the country's last president, Umaru Musa Yar'adua, might not have disappeared from public view and proceeded to die in office, evidently from its strain, in 2010. But Yar'adua's then vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, had, as Nigerians sometimes joke, the fortuitous circumstance of becoming the leader of one of Africa's richest nations overnight.
The following year, Jonathan went on to win the presidency in his own right, and now many are asking whether he will break his pledge not to run again and whether the country's enormous promise will, through democracy, be available to more Nigerians when Jonathan leaves office than when he arrived.
As the U.S.-based thinktank Freedom House pointed out in a recent survey, Nigeria has been enjoying its longest run of civilian rule in its 53-year history since independence from Britain. Against that bar of relatively low expectations arises another, perhaps more important question: Will authority rotate, as the design of this diverse federation of more than 160 million people demands, or will power be consolidated in the hands of a strongman as has happened in the past?
Today, on June 12, Nigerians are reflecting on the country's political history. The election held 20 years ago was considered the most democratic after years of military rule, and was also widely believed to have been won by Moshood Abiola, a southerner like Jonathan. But Ibrahim Babangida, the president and former general at the time, annulled the results, triggering widespread unrest and deepening existing political fissures.
The political turmoil continued with Babangida's appointment of an interim civilian administration that was quickly sidelined by authoritarian General Sani Abacha in November 1993. He ruled until his death in office in 1998.
Elections were organized under General Abdulsalami Abubakar, and former president and general Olusegun Obasanjo won two terms. In 2006, Obasanjo - hailed by many in the West as a reformer - toyed with the idea of a third term before Nigeria's friends persuaded him that would dampen his country's hopes for building democratic traditions and would likely lead to turmoil, prompting him to engineer the election of the ill-fated Yar'adua.
Today, the Nigerian press is giving loft to similar trial balloons launched by Jonathan and his team as the country's out-sized party of power, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), reportedly considers nominating him for a new term, before Jonathan has delivered on the anti-corruption pledge for which he is best known, at least in the West. According to Transparency International, perceptions of corruption in Nigeria have worsened, not improved, during Jonathan's five years in office.
"Our problems with democracy didn't start with the current administration and clearly won't end with it," Eugene Enahoro recently wrote in Nigeria's Daily Trust, adding, "With poverty, disease and illiteracy still commonplace it's evident the quality of governance Nigerians expected from democratically elected leaders hasn't been achieved."
What is encouraging about Nigeria is the faith of ordinary people that the next government - whether at the local, state or national level - can do better. A candidate for local office in Abia state was crafting his campaign message recently, playing with words on paper until he came up with "Let's elect a council as good as the people it serves," at which point his face brightened into a fulsome grin.
For those in Nigeria seeking a greater stake in their own governance, the next election in 2015 still seems a long way off. The three immediate issues of greatest importance to most - poverty, lack of security and corruption - continue to be roadblocks to the oil-rich nation's prospects for leading itself and perhaps Africa as a whole beyond its developmental challenges and towards a more broadly prosperous future, according to public opinion polls.
But with an Islamic insurgency inflicting mounting casualties in the north and infighting among the federation's 36 states and one capital region, both governance and the democratic aspirations of the Nigerian state are threatened. Having lost, according to World Bank estimates, more than U.S.$40 billion in state revenues to graft since Nigeria's inception, the country's next leaders will have to come up with a better plan for making resource wealth more beneficial to a public confronted by intermittent electricity and grinding poverty.
Boko Haram, the Islamist group whose name literally means: "Western education is forbidden," directly challenges Nigerian state control of the predominantly Muslim north. Violence associated with Boko Haram, including attacks by the military, has claimed over 3,600 lives since 2009, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. Jonathan's government has imposed a state of emergency in three states and a very public projection of military force there.
Some human rights groups question whether these tactics are too indiscriminate, and one businessman and former governor has suggested what appears to be collective punishment against villages suspected of sheltering Boko Haram is actually driving innocents into the hands of the terrorists. What is needed instead, argues self-made tycoon Orji Kalu, is a campaign for the hearts and minds of those caught in Boko Haram's cross-fire - those who have reason to believe the Nigerian state is failing them.
Kalu, who was twice elected governor of southern Abia state, knows a thing or two about being left on the peripheries of Nigerian politics. As a member of the Igbo ethnic group, which together with the Hausa Fulani in the north and the Yoruba in the southwest is one of Nigeria's three major ethnicities, Kalu comes from a group that has been denied the chance to rule the federation since the 1967-70 civil war, for which the Hausa Fulani and the Yoruba continue to blame the Igbo.
With more than 20 million in Nigeria and perhaps an equal number living in diaspora communities worldwide, the Igbo raise an important point when they suggest that including them more meaningfully in how Nigeria is governed is critical to the country's democratic character. Beyond the question of ethnic inclusion, though, patterns of behavior that appear to have become ingrained in a half century of independence must also be addressed:
"Nigerians will have to do away with the current system of godfatherism—an archaic, corrupt practice in which individuals with lots of money and time to spare sponsor their chosen candidates and push them right through the desired political position, bribing, threatening, and, on occasion, murdering any opposition in the process," the legendary African writer Chinua Achebe observed in his last book, "There Was a Country". When Achebe died at the age of 82 last March, politicians and "godfathers" alike practically tripped over one another in efforts to eulogize the man who put Nigerian literature on the map, but the essence of his wisdom, to date, seems largely ignored.
Like so many resource-rich states from the frigid steppes of Russia to the precariously top-heavy and unstable autocracies of the Gulf states, Nigeria is confronted with the tantalizing irony of what economists call the "oil curse." At the same time, it is unique because of the vibrancy of its civil society, the relative openness of its media, and a diverse population that, by its nature, demands democratic accountability.
Each March 29th since the end of military rule in 1999, Nigerians have celebrated "Democracy Day," and when they repeat this exercise in a little less than a year's time, it will be well-worth seeing whether institutions have been strengthened and whether the run-up to the next election is marked by a vibrant and competitive field of candidates. If indeed there is progress to be reported, it will not be one man's political achievement, but rather the concerted will of millions to mature from crisis to a more enduring stability. Africa as a whole can be ennobled by that example.
Sam Patten is a democracy expert who has worked for Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, as well as democratic candidates and parties in a dozen countries. He recently returned from a field visit to Nigeria.