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Nigerian Election Success Could Polish Country's Reputation

  • Drew Hinshaw

Attahiru Jega, Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman, reads the results sheet before he declared Nigeria's incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the presidential election, in Abuja, Nigeria, April 18, 2011

Attahiru Jega, Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman, reads the results sheet before he declared Nigeria's incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan as the winner of the presidential election, in Abuja, Nigeria, April 18, 2011

Nigeria may be able to polish its reputation and assume a wider role on the global stage if its upcoming gubernatorial polls are as seemingly free and fair as last week's presidential election, analysts say.

This oil-exporting country of 154 million people has long enjoyed the money and manpower to dominate its continent, and some analysts expect it to top South Africa as the most economically and politically powerful country in Africa by 2030.

Yet throughout decades of unruly and often corrupt rule, the main obstacle between Nigeria and its potential for global stewardship has been its poor international reputation for vote rigging, for corruption, and for its government's lukewarm commitment to democracy.

The country should be a member of the influential G20 (Group of 20 nations) U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Nigerians during a 2009 visit. But the country's reputation for corruption, she said, is a problem.

Analysts say, however, that Nigeria's reputation for corrupt, un-democratic, and inhumane rule may be on the mend following its most free and fair elections in recent memory.

The April 16 presidential poll, won by President Goodluck Jonathan, was widely hailed as reasonably fair by international observers like the Commonwealth of former British colonies and the African Union. The outcome set off riots in the country's north, and Jonathan's opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, has said he will contest the results in court. But the vote was nonetheless seen as a vast improvement over the previous election, five years ago, that was roundly criticized as chaotic and rigged.

The country will vote again to elect state governors on April 26, and Jonathan has asked Nigerians to conduct themselves peacefully throughout the poll, lest they mar the goodwill the country earned by holding a free and fair presidential election. In his victory speech, Jonathan said the internationally-acclaimed vote has allowed Nigeria to take its rightful place in the community of nations.

"We have reiterated our faith in democracy which underscores our determination to join the free world where only the will of the people is the foundation of governance," said Jonathan. "We will not let you down."

African analyst for the London-based watchgroup Chatham House Drew Vines says the country's first seemingly legitimate election in recent history will only bolster the West African powerhouse's growing influence in Africa and abroad.

"I think this is a really important moment for West Africa, and highly significant for Nigeria," said Vines. "This is the best election in memory for Nigeria, and hopefully will provide a sound basis for Nigeria to reassert itself as one of the major countries of Africa."

In many respects, he said, Nigeria is already taking a more strident position in international affairs.

Jonathan, Vines says, has been unusually outspoken in favor of military reforms for the tiny, drug cartel-troubled state of Guinea-Bissau.

He also inserted himself into the center of last month's Ivory Coast conflict. Nigeria co-sponsored a United Nations resolution for a military intervention to remove the country's incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, when he refused to concede a November 28 election.

In contrast, Africa's wealthiest and most influential nation, South Africa, offered Gbagbo a power-sharing agreement that Ivorian and Nigerian leaders harshly criticized.

That geopolitical clash between South Africa and Nigeria, Vines says, may be the first in a long tilt of power on the continent.

"Many people have missed the long term, forward modeling of where the world will be in 2030," added Vines. "Nigeria could be a top 20 global economy - the only one in Africa, not South Africa. That's the potential for Nigeria if it gets its internal politics right."

However widely accepted its latest election, Nigeria still faces immense human rights crises that will compromise its ability to speak with authority on the world stage, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Eric Guttschuss.

Guttschuss says the country has yet to fully address brutality in its security forces, and corruption in its treasury.

"We have seen a significant improvement in these last polls, but [chief among] the steps going forward is to address these very deep seated issues of corruption, of political violence, of impunity for all classes, of human rights violations as well as abuses by the police and other security forces," noted Guttschuss.

If that can be accomplished, analysts say, Nigeria has a future as not only an African leader, but a world leader.

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