Given the often grisly news from Nigeria in recent months, I did not know what I would encounter as part of the International Republican Institute’s election observation mission. There were concerns of widespread violence throughout the country. But my experiences encouraged me. The orderly, transparent process could serve as a model for other African nations.
It is apparently always hot in Kaduna, a city in northwest Nigeria, at this time of year. But something else was in the air on March 28. For the first time since Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999, there was going to be a close election.
At polling site after polling site, thousands of people stood in line for hours, waiting for Independent National Electoral Commission officials to arrive with election materials. The crowds awaiting accreditation were strikingly calm under the searing African sun. Despite all the security briefings and grim news I had ingested, I never once felt that I was in a situation where things would turn violent. Far from it: People were excited to vote and cheerfully determined not to leave polling sites until every vote was cast and counted. Nigerians were eager to have their voices heard the democratic way–peacefully.
Voters at polling stations across Kaduna helped the elderly, the disabled, mothers carrying children, and pregnant women move to the front of the lines.
I saw resilience and patience as voters endured technical challenges that accompanied Nigeria’s shift to a biometric card reader system for verifying voters. There were numerous difficulties with fingerprint scanners programmed to recognize voters from each of Nigeria’s more than 150,000 districts.
At the end of a long day, citizens gathered around the electoral commission officials at polling units as they tabulated votes. The process was transparent. Exuberance and anxiety hung in the air as voters watched ballots being added to their candidate’s pile.
After I returned to my hotel in Abuja, presidential candidates Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammdu Buhari – each of whom had pledged their commitment to a peaceful election — continued urging their supporters to respect the process and refrain from violence. The race was tight, but it seemed that both men wanted to win a free and fair election.
After the final numbers were tallied, for the first time in Nigeria’s history an incumbent president peacefully conceded to an opponent. President Jonathan earned only 45% of votes to Mr. Buhari’s 54%. This was perhaps the most encouraging spectacle of all: In such a close race and contentious political atmosphere, there was almost no violence; there were no accusations of foul play or lawsuits challenging the results. There was peace after the voting–despite predictions to the contrary.
After 25 years in politics, much of my career has involved in U.S. elections at some level or other. Nigeria’s voting process deepened my appreciation for the U.S. system and the value of supporting those throughout the world striving to build strong and peaceful democracies.
Nigeria’s election could be the start of a new chapter in which peace becomes the core of a formerly bloody democratic process. By emphasizing its openness and transparency, lack of intimidation and violence at polling sites, and the peaceful transition following the contentious campaign, Nigeria’s historic presidential election could serve as a model for other African nations.
Doug Heye is a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and deputy chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.Top