Just in case you missed the invitation, the world threw an election extravaganza last week. In South Carolina, the eight Democratic presidential hopefuls got together for the first time to show off the familiar debate waltz. Across the Atlantic, the expected showdown between the Leftist brunette bombshell Ségolène Royal and the right-wing Napoleon-look-alike Nicolas Sarkozy has finally become a reality. While these were the big stories, some place called Nigeria had a presidential election too. Believe it or not, they have those over there.
Despite being overshadowed by events in the Western (and therefore more important) world, Nigeria’s presidential contest last Saturday was supposed to be a decisive step in the democratic fate of a country and a continent. It’s a shame that no one seemed to care. Without help and pressure from the West, especially America, Nigeria’s election devolved into a sham that could have been easily prevented.
Much like the rest of Africa, Nigeria seems to have everything going wrong. As a colonial patchwork of more than 250 different ethnic and religious groups vying for the same limited resources, the sub-Saharan nation is a genocidal time bomb waiting to explode. To add to the combustible mix, Nigeria is plagued with the same intense poverty and wealth disparity that has come to characterize the continent. Tack on millions more living with HIV/AIDS, volatile neighbors and one of the highest rates of political corruption in the world and you would expect the world to write off Nigeria the same way it did Rwanda and now Sudan.
Unlike the rest of Africa, however, Nigeria has two things holding it together: oil and democracy. As the continent’s largest oil producer and the sixth largest in the world, Nigeria has the one resource that can force people to work together. After a long history of military rule, a grass-roots democratic movement in the 1990s brought on a fledgling democracy with catch-all parties and an internationally respected leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The hope was that Nigeria could become a source of stability in the heart of Africa and a success story for a troubled continent.
But that bubble of hope may have busted on Saturday. In its first attempt to transfer power from one civilian leader to another, Nigeria’s presidential election ended in a bizarre twist: Everybody lost. Sure, it may be true that Umaru Yar’Adua of the People’s Democratic Party won, but intimidation, ballot stuffing and a generally fraudulent election discredited his victory. After a violent reaction from opposition parties, statements of condemnation from the international community and a lawsuit that will take the election to the courts, the continent’s one source of stability is now a big question mark.
It didn’t have to end this way though. A week before the presidential elections, Nigeria held regional elections marred by similar scandal. A week later the international community allowed the same thing to happen. If it were serious about promoting democracy, the West would have used the threat of sanctions or the reward of loan forgiveness to force Nigeria to postpone the election or pressure Obasanjo to fix the irregularities.
But God forbid that America should lift a finger to help. With more than 60 million ballots stored in South Africa to prevent tampering, transporting the ballots back to Nigeria presented a problem that delayed the polls from opening for two hours in many places and gave other areas an excuse to keep polls closed all day.
Ironically, when the Union of Islamic Courts were fleeing Somalia at the beginning of the year, America was able to mobilize fighter planes to bomb Somalia, but those planes were unavailable to transport ballots from South Africa to Nigeria. Despite all his democratic rhetoric in the past, President Bush let an opportunity to actually promote democracy slip away.
With Nigeria’s future in question, nobody wins. The country itself could become engulfed in violence and the continent could lose the best thing it has going for it. Meanwhile, the rest of the world seems all too intent on not caring. When the Western world gets over itself enough to stop gawking at Royal’s high heels or Hillary Clinton’s power suit, maybe it will realize that promoting democracy isn’t best done with the barrel of a gun.
Free and fair elections might be a good place to start.
Gary Graca is the summer editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.