Threats remain, despite milestones in Nigeria's presidential election

A man walks past campaign posters in Nigeria. The voting period for the country’s regional elections will continue until April 11. Photo by: Clara Sanchiz / RNW / CC BY-NC

While threats remain in the post-voting period, Nigeria’s presidential election may have been the smoothest-running in the country’s history.

Despite terror attacks, technical glitches and an extension of the voting period, voters and election monitors are pointing to three key areas in which the race between current President Goodluck Jonathan and opposition Muhammadu Buhari marks a milestone for Africa’s largest democracy: greater transparency, a much more proactive civil society and more efficient logistics.

Still, Nigerian government officials and election monitors warn that eyes must remain on Nigeria. The postelection period — when voters will cast their ballots for state governors, the Senate and the House of Representatives — will likely present new challenges to the country’s democratic system.

One concern is that Nigerians will react violently to election results. After presidential elections in 2011, demonstrations in northern Nigeria left 800 people dead.

“The danger is postelection,” former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, who is leading a Commonwealth observer mission in Nigeria, told reporters Sunday. Both candidates signed a peace accord to discourage violent reactions when the outcome is announced, though concerns remain that protests might turn deadly.

As the country braces for all possibilities, the United Nations, election monitors and organizations on the ground in Nigeria are already remarking on the progress demonstrated throughout this weekend’s elections.

Increased transparency

While the new biometric registration card readers experienced some malfunction, election experts told Devex that Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission had prepared itself for technical difficulties.

“Technology can always fail,” Julia Hedlund, program manager for West Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, told Devex. But even considering the possibility of malfunction, she said, the device created much-needed trust among voters.

This is the first time Nigeria is using the card readers on the national level, Hedlund explained, and “the procedure has been widely embraced by the public, who tend to distrust the political process and see even just the effort of using voting technology as positive.”

Hedlund added that “there are other fail-safes in place” so people can still vote if the card readers don’t work, which they initially didn’t when incumbent Jonathan and three of his cabinet members cast their votes.

Growing civil society

Civil society organizations in Nigeria have been independent of INEC since 2011, when the commission decided it would not fund CSO activity. While CSOs initially struggled to raise money and organize, this election has seen CSOs and independent election groups out in force.

“The donor community is depending more on CSOs than in the past to do the grass-roots work,” Uloma Osuala, deputy director of IFES in Nigeria, told Devex. “I’ve seen that CSOs are much more engaged in the democratic process compared to past elections.”

This election even saw the establishment of a civil society “situation room,” where groups gather to organize and disseminate news about how the election is going.

Smoother, safer election logistics

In the face of technical difficulties, INEC extended the voting period to Sunday in several states. While this raised some questions in the media about electoral integrity, Hedlund pointed out that INEC similarly extended elections in 2011, which took up three full days of voting.

In fact, the use of a few new measures to ensure vote integrity is earning INEC praise. The establishment of registration area centers near the poll stations helped cut down the distance poll workers had to travel and transport voting materials. It’s a safer, more efficient system.

Another new INEC mechanism, known as election operations support centers, began tracking distribution of materials and polling staff the night before elections in order to begin restocking and restaffing before polls opened.

Still, Hedlund added, some logistical challenges remain.

“Just the size of the commission here — it’s a huge bureaucracy,” she said. While INEC is trying to decentralize from the capital Abuja, keeping track of Nigeria’s far-flung electorate requires more of a presence in all of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Hedlund, like Muluzi, also stressed the need for vigilance in the postelection period, and as regional elections heat up.

“Gubernatorial elections here are often more contentious than the national level elections,” she said. Regional officials hold significant resources at the state level, so house and senate races are often very competitive.

“It’s a shame in some ways that the gubernatorial elections get less coverage than the national,” she said, considering their significance in country.

The world tends to watch less closely once the winner of the presidency is announced. But with Nigerians casting their votes until April 11, the international community should keep the pressure on the country to conduct safe, efficient elections.

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

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