As Goes Nigeria, So Goes Africa

Nigerians can see change, but will they vote for it?

Photographer: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance to Islamic State has raised fears of terrorism spreading across middle Africa. Yet such anxieties threaten to overshadow a larger and less hypothetical threat: that Nigeria's upcoming elections will spark widespread unrest in Africa's leading power.

The presidential vote, set for March 28, is a bitter rematch of the 2011 election between Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, and Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader from the Muslim north. Jonathan prevailed last time in a contest marred by fraud and riots.

Low public confidence in the electoral process, particularly in the north, took another blow when the government, citing security concerns caused by Boko Haram's attacks, postponed the vote just one week before it was supposed to take place in February. (Never mind that plans for a new and complex computerized voting card system were behind schedule.)

Meanwhile, incendiary rhetoric has also fanned hatred, with Nigeria's first lady saying that Buhari is "brain-dead" and that his supporters should be "stoned." No wonder that, in one pre-election poll, 73 percent of Nigerians were dissatisfied with how democracy works in their country.

None of this is to say that Nigeria's response to Boko Haram has been effective; after first downplaying the group's attacks, the government has trumpeted gains that have been achieved mostly by Nigeria's neighbors and mercenaries. It is to say, however, that Boko Haram is not an existential threat to the Nigerian government. And its recent pledge of fealty to Islamic State has fed Jonathan's narrative that Nigeria is helping to fight a global war on terror, rather than flailing before a decentralized insurgency that draws on local grievances.

Instead of promising military discipline, stoking sectarian passions or ridiculing opponents, Nigeria's presidential candidates should be putting forward a convincing vision for progress. They need to address the disparities that have left the north home to more than 60 percent of Nigeria's poor, with relatively dismal education and public health. They need to combat rising inequality, even as Nigeria's economy enjoys robust growth, and reduce its dependence on oil for government revenue and foreign exchange.

Above all, Nigeria's leaders need to address their country's pervasive corruption. Last February, for instance, Jonathan fired the head of Nigeria's central bank for daring to point out that $20 billion in Nigeria's oil revenue had gone missing.

In this kind of toxic climate, any hopes for clean, violence-free elections may be misplaced. Both candidates' camps have said the only credible outcome would be their respective victory, with Buhari's followers vowing to set up a parallel government and Jonathan's threatening attacks on the country's oil infrastructure in the event of a loss.

Nigeria's neighbors and friends need to help them come to their senses. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited in January to encourage both candidates and their followers to accept election results. One worrying sign would be the removal of the head of Nigeria's independent election commission, which has been rumored.

It's hard to exaggerate how important it is for the continent's biggest economic power and most populous nation to make its first successful transition of power between parties since gaining independence more than half a century ago. The significance of Nigeria's election is its potential impact not on the fight against terrorism there, but on the progress of democracy in Africa. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.