Africa’s Crisis of Democracy
The New York Times
By Lydia Polgreen

KANO, Nigeria, April 22 — Nigeria’s troubled presidential election, which came under fire on Sunday from local and international observers and was rejected by two leading opposition candidates, represents a significant setback for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa at a time when voters in countries across the continent are becoming more disillusioned with the way democracy is practiced.

Analysts said the Nigerian vote was the starkest example of a worrying trend — even as African countries hold more elections, many of their citizens are steadily losing confidence in their democracies.

“The picture in Africa is really mixed,” said Peter Lewis, director of the African Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, who was among the researchers who conducted the Afrobarometer survey of African public opinion. “Some countries have vibrant political scenes, while other countries go through the routine of elections but governance doesn’t seem to improve.”

African voters are losing patience with faulty elections that often exclude popular candidates and are marred by serious irregularities, according to the Afrobarometer survey, published last year, which sampled voters in 18 countries, based on interviews with 1,200 to 2,400 people per country. While 6 in 10 Africans said democracy was preferable to any other form of government, according to the survey, satisfaction with democracy dipped to 45 percent from 58 percent in 2001.

The threat to Nigeria’s fragile democracy was underscored on Sunday by government officials, who dropped dark hints warning of a possible coup attempt, and said election critics were welcoming a military putsch by inciting violence.

Twenty-five candidates vied to replace the departing president in the Saturday vote, the first time in Nigeria’s history that power will be transferred between two civilian administrations. But the election was marred by chaos, violence and fraud. Results are not expected until Monday at the earliest.

Election officials gave themselves high marks on Sunday for the handling of the polls, but their comments were in sharp contrast to assessments of international observers. Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state, who observed the election for the National Democratic Institute, said that “in a number of places and in a number of ways, the election process failed the Nigerian people.” The International Republican Institute said that the election fell “below acceptable standards.”

Such observations represent a stunning turnabout for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous and second richest country, and reflect the deep frustrations of millions of Nigerians. In 2000, in the euphoric aftermath of Nigeria’s transition from a long spell of military rule to democracy, 84 percent of Nigerians said that they were satisfied with democracy as practiced in Nigeria, according to the Afrobarometer survey.

By 2005 that number had plummeted to 25 percent, lower than all the countries surveyed save Zimbabwe. Almost 70 percent of Nigerians did not believe elections would allow them to remove objectionable leaders, the survey found.

Freedom House, an organization that monitors the spread of democracy and free speech, said in a report last year that the overall trends for African democracy were mixed. “Sub-Saharan Africa in 2006 presents at the same time some of the most promising examples of new democracies,” the report said. It also has “some of the most disheartening examples of political stagnation, democratic backsliding, and state failure.”

For every successful election, like those held this year in once-troubled countries like Mauritania and Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been elections in countries that seemed on the road to consolidating democracy but then swerved, like Gambia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Zambia. There are also countries that hold regular elections, but they are so flawed they cannot really be called democratic, like those in Guinea, Zimbabwe and Gabon.

In 1976, according to Freedom House, just three countries in Africa were listed as “free,” while the vast majority, 25, were “not free.” Thirty years later, the not-free category had shrunk to 14 states, and the bulk of Africa now falls into the “partly free” category.

In the middle of that group is Nigeria, a nation of 140 million people divided among 250 ethnic groups and two major religions, Islam and Christianity, all of whom live in a space twice the size of California. It is rich in oil, exporting about two million barrels a day, but the riches that oil brings have not translated into meaningful development.

In Kano, a once vibrant manufacturing center, the contradictions of Nigeria’s eight-year-old experiment with elected government are vividly on display. Far from building a unified country aimed at the greatest good for all, Nigeria has instead become an every-man-for-himself nation. In Kano’s Government Residential Area, where the wealthy live, each household is its own power and water company. Plastic water tanks on spidery legs tower over the tiled roofs, each fed by an electric pump sucking water from a private well. The electric company provides light just a few hours a day, so the air is thick with the belching diesel smoke of a thousand generators, clattering away in miserable, endless unison.

The poor must manage however they can. With the decline of manufacturing and few formal jobs, many residents make a meager living off one another’s misery. Idriss Abdoulaye sells water from a pushcart for 20 naira a jerry can, about 15 cents, to people like himself, too poor to have wells. He makes about $2 a day, and cannot afford to send his sons to school. Instead they go to a Koranic school, where they learn the Koran by rote. He said he worries they will end up as poor, illiterate traders like him. “There is no future for the poor man in this country,” he said.

The government was supposed to make improving the nation’s infrastructure a priority — President Olusegun Obasanjo, elected in 1999 and stepping down next month after two terms in office, campaigned on the promise of more electricity. Despite billions spent on the problem, all that changed was the name of the state power company. Once known as N.E.P.A. — which Nigerians joked stood for Never Expect Power Again — it is now called Power Holding Company. The improvement in service has been so minimal that a new joke has taken hold — Please Hold Candle.

But when Saidu Dattijo Adhama laughs about Nigeria’s troubles, it is through gritted teeth. He is a textile manufacturer in Kano, and his factory used to produce 3,000 cotton jersey garments a day. Six years ago he was forced to shut down because paying for private generator power to spin his knitters and spinners and pump water for his bleaching and dyeing machines left him unable to compete with cheap imports flooding the country in the wake of trade liberalization. “The reason I went out of business is simple,” he said. “It is the Nigerian factor. No light. No water. No reliable suppliers. How can I compete with someone in China who opens the tap and sees water? Who taps a switch and sees light?”

Mr. Adhama used to employ 330 workers in his workshops in the 1980s, but now he has just 24 employees as he tries to restart his business. He said the blame for the country’s dilapidated condition lay with its leaders. Inept and corrupt officials have either wasted or plundered an estimated $380 billion from Nigeria’s treasury since Nigeria won independence from Britain in 1960.

“We are not a poor country,” Mr. Adhama said. “We have oil, we have resources. But it is the management of those resources that has been lacking. They have been hijacked. And then when we come to vote them out of office for their misdeeds, they hijack that as well.” He said life now was in many ways worse than it was under military rule — there was more crime, less order. The one real improvement is the ability to freely speak his mind, Mr. Adhama said. “But even that is worthless,” he said. “What is the point of talking if no one is listening?”

Mr. Adhama said he had no nostalgia for military rule, but some Nigerians do. For them, the names Sani Abacha, Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida, fearsome military rulers from Nigeria’s past, signify security and decisive leadership, not autocracy and corruption.

In Malumfashi, a small town in southern Katsina state, men and boys not yet born when Mr. Buhari, now the candidate of a popular opposition party, was ruler, torched tires, threw stones and trashed billboards in a rampage to express their anger that they had not been able to vote. The ballot boxes in their town, an opposition stronghold, had been snatched by thugs loyal to the ruling party, they said. “We need Buhari, only Buhari,” the young men shouted, wild-eyed as they encircled a foreign journalist and photographer, half menacing and half embracing, as they pressed their grievances.

“No job!”

“No food!”

“No light!”

“No freedom!”

“No election!”

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