THE 2015 general election was conducted under the watchful eye of the world. The flurry of diplomatic activity before, during and after the election was unprecedented. It was such a high stakes election that the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United Nations weighed in heavily from start to finish. Indeed, ahead of the elections, President Obama made an unusual video appeal to Nigerians, telling them that: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”!
In his recently published book, My Transition Hours, former President Goodluck Jonathan described Obama’s intervention as “condescending” and partly blamed it for his defeat. But Jonathan’s criticism ignores the fact that Obama’s intervention was against the backdrop of apocalyptic predictions of post-election violence and possible disintegration of Nigeria. It was widely feared that if Jonathan lost, the Niger Delta militants would blow up oil installations and cripple Nigeria’s economy, and if General Buhari lost, the North would tear Nigeria apart. Neither Jonathan nor Buhari reined in their war-mongering supporters or condemned their incendiary rhetoric.
But, in the end, sanity prevailed. President Jonathan, having lost the election, did the honourable thing and conceded defeat. The fact that President Buhari continues to say that Jonathan “saved the Nigerian state” by conceding defeat to him suggests that he believes the doomsday predictions would have come to pass had Jonathan not done so. Jonathan himself said that he “made sacrifices for Nigeria” by his action. Yet, no one should underestimate the role that international pressure played in bringing about that outcome, in keeping the politicians on the straight and narrow. Indeed, in one statement, President Buhari thanked the US for “exerting pressure” during the elections, adding that, “I will never forget the role the US played in the stability of Nigeria”. 2015 was, indeed, a momentous year in the history of Nigeria.
But, fortunately, the same apocalyptic imagery is not dogging next month’s elections. Of course, this does not mean that there are no fears of violence. Indeed, the fear of rigging and violence hang over the coming elections. The United States Institute of Peace, USIP, recently interviewed over 200 Nigerians in nine states for a special report entitled “Nigeria’s 2019 elections: change, continuity and the risks to peace”. The respondents said they “feared that any deliberate attempts to frustrate the will of the voters could lead to violence”. In other words, Nigerians expect the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to, at least, maintain the level of performance it achieved in 2015 and think any regression from that standard could trigger violence. Crucially, though, no one is talking in apocalyptic terms about post-election violence that could break up Nigeria. Consequently, given the lack of an imminent catastrophe, such as existed in 2015, we have not seen the same level of intense diplomatic and political activities that preceded that year’s elections.
We can’t afford the cost of looking away from inequality
However, some have argued that the US would, in any case, not be actively engaged this time because President Trump is more interested in counterterrorism and trade than in democracy and governance. In a recent speech on US strategy on Africa, John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Adviser, said: “Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further US priorities”. Some suggest this means the US would not expend resources on policing democracy or governance in Africa. As for the EU and Britain, well, they have bigger fish to fry: Brexit!
But none of these speculations reflect the reality. There is certainly no evidence that the international community or, more precisely, the West would turn away if things look like going awry with the elections. Indeed, on November 18 last year, 26 foreign missions in Nigeria issued a joint statement calling for “free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections”. And, individually, US, EU and UK missions in Nigeria have launched intense diplomatic activities on the elections. They also regularly provide intelligence to their governments. For instance, on December 13, Tibor Nagy Jr., Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, appeared before a sub-committee of the US House of Representatives in a hearing entitled “Nigeria at a Crossroads: The Upcoming Elections.”
Now, some Nigerians regard such intense and direct international engagement as diplomatic meddling and a breach of the doctrines of sovereignty. President Jonathan’s criticism of President Obama’s intervention during the 2015 elections reflects such a view. But such criticisms are misguided.
First, Nigeria is so strategically important that it cannot be ignored or left to its own devices, particularly on matters that could undermine its democracy, governance or security. And, second, it is an old-fashioned, unrealistic view of the Westphalian principles of sovereignty and non-interference to think that they are absolute under modern international law or, indeed, in a world of greater interconnectedness between states.
So, rightly, the world, including international media, will be watching Nigeria closely as it conducts its elections next month. They will expect them to be free, fair, transparent and peaceful. That’s not too much to ask. Nigeria must not fail the test. Happy New Year!