This week, newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari will make an historic first trip to Washington, D.C. as head of state.
In the year leading up to the March 28, 2015 presidential poll, many pundits agreed that Nigeria was facing one of its most challenging periods in its history. Election-related violence seemed imminent given the deep political and regional polarization and ongoing attacks by Boko Haram insurgents in the Northeastern part of the country. There was also grave concern that a failed election in Nigeria would destabilize all of West Africa. Despite these fears, Nigeria organized a historic election, and for the first time since independence, political power was transferred peacefully from one political party to another.
Democracy activists and the international community at-large have lauded Nigeria’s electoral success story, but the work is not over. Buhari’s visit to Washington this week represents an important opportunity for the United States and the international community of democracies to renew its commitment to Nigeria and bolster its example across the continent.
The conduct of the presidential election sent a strong message to Nigerians and citizens across Africa: Credible elections matter and leaders can be held accountable. The success of the election raised significant confidence that governance and political processes in Nigeria will continue to improve. Civil society groups waged a national campaign to mitigate violence, and conducted a parallel vote tabulation (PVT) which built confidence in the official election results but flagged large-scale fraud in one of the country’s six geo-political zones. Many Nigerians now believe that the country is better placed than before to implement reforms that would forestall democratic backsliding.
But this is not the time for Nigerians or the international democracy community to rest on collective laurels. Nigeria is faced with significant security, economic and political trials. By some estimates, more than 600 people have been killed in attacks by Boko Haram since President Buhari was sworn into office on May 29. Buhari was handed over empty state coffers and an indebted federal government, with fuel shortages contributing to crippling economic activity and a cycle of corruption to clean up. Important political and electoral reform also remains to be tackled. “Electoral reform has just begun, a lot more efforts need to be done,” as stated by the outgoing chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega.
While the credibility of Nigerian elections have improved since 2007, the 2011 and 2015 elections were by no means perfect. Although outgoing INEC Chairman., Prof. Jega did much to institutionalize reforms within the Commission, his departure, along with as many as 10 out of the 12 National Commissioners whose terms have expired this summer, could constitute another hurdle to INEC’s ability to consolidate electoral process improvements.
There is the immediate need for the Nigerian National Assembly to enact electoral reform measures recommended by a special commission following the 2011 national polls, including unburdening the Commission of the some of its duties, such as monitoring of political party primaries and prosecuting electoral offences, and INEC still faces massive challenges in election day logistics and operations as a consequence of working in a country with almost 70 million registered voters, unreliable infrastructure and recurring regional conflicts. President Buhari’s choice for the new chairman of INEC will shape the immediate progression of Nigeria’s electoral processes, hopefully continuing in a positive direction.
President Buhari’s honeymoon period will be short. Nigeria’s vibrant and mobilized citizen audience are already watching his every step, using creative tools such as the “Buharimeter” which tracks the degree to which the president is achieving his campaign promises. Buhari replaced his top military officials on July 13, a move widely welcomed in Nigeria where the performance of the armed forces in the fight against Boko Haram has been roundly criticized. He has also slashed his own and the vice-president’s salary in half, another popular move. However, Buhari is yet to appoint a cabinet, now more than six weeks after his inauguration. As detailed in a recent Foreign Policy article, this delay has created concerns about the new administration’s ability to swiftly and effectively address the country’s many challenges.
Expectations are running high, and the stakes only reinforce the importance of advancing democracy and good governance. Experience shows that solving a country’s problems is too large a task for one office, and that progress is difficult to achieve without the support of strong democratic institutions and systems. Continued pressure from international and domestic democracy organizations will be needed to keep Buhari on the democracy track and ensure that Nigeria does not fall back into “business as usual” patronage politics.
Nigeria’s neighbors are also keeping a close eye on Buhari’s Washington visit. A warm reception in Washington creates a powerful incentive for neighbors to follow the Nigerian example of free and fair election processes. Buhari’s visit is prompting neighboring governments to make important choices over the coming months when it comes to democratic commitments. In West Africa alone, there will be three presidential polls in October — in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea — to be followed by presidential races in important countries in the Central African region in 2016, such as the DRC and Chad.
Nigeria has made important strides over the past election cycle. That’s why now is the time for the international democracy community to strengthen its engagement rather than shift attention and resources away. As Buhari makes his first state visit to Washington, the United States and international community must pledge renewed support and continued partnership with Nigeria to further the country’s democratic growth and set the tone across the continent. Just because the polls are closed does not mean the work is done.
Chris Fomunyoh is regional director for Central and West Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Gretchen Birkle is regional director for Africa at the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Rushdi Nackerdien is regional director for Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Their organizations are the core partners of the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening, which has received support from USAID to carry out democracy assistance efforts in Nigeria and elsewhere.Top