Published On: Fri, May 29th, 2015

Nigeria’s free and fair elections are an inspiration for nascent democracies

 

 

Outgoing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (left) presents a gift to President-elect Muhammadu Buhari (right) in Abuja, Nigeria.

Outgoing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (left) presents a gift to President-elect Muhammadu Buhari (right) in Abuja, Nigeria. Photograph: Afolabi Sotunde /Reuters

For the first time in Nigeria’s history, an elected president is today handing power to another elected president following an election that was, by and large, free, fair and comparatively peaceful. President Goodluck Jonathan, in particular, deserves much credit for conceding defeat promptly and elegantly.

I was present when, just three months ago, Jonathan and his main opponent, the incoming president General Muhammadu Buhari, agreed to peaceful presidential elections by signing an inter-party agreement. This committed them and their parties to taking active measures to prevent electoral violence before, during and after the elections. They also agreed to respect the outcome of the ballot. It was an important message, reassuring to both Nigerians and their neighbours, and my foundation and I were pleased to add our support to the electoral effort.

But was this message heard beyond Nigeria’s borders?

The spread of elections across the world has been one of the most dramatic changes I have witnessed over the course of my career. In country after country, people have risked their lives to be able to vote. Elections are the indispensable tool of democracy.

But in recent years, flawed elections have often eroded the trust of citizens in the democratic process. Election-related violence in countries as disparate as Egypt, Ukraine, Thailand and more recently Burundi demonstrated how elections, which are meant to promote stability and facilitate the peaceful transfer of power, can become divisive if the process is not handled professionally, transparently and with integrity. It is not surprising that when elections are seen as a mere technical exercise enabling a person or a group to accede to or remain in power in an otherwise wholly undemocratic context, they quickly become a source of disillusionment and violence.

While no election is ever perfect, not even in the most developed and stable democracies, people want their elections to be fair and credible.

The lesson we are learning is that elections alone are not enough, even if all technical and organisational procedures are respected. The reason is simple: democracy is not just about legality, critical though the rule of law is for a peaceful society; it is about legitimacy. Elections must offer genuine choice. On the other hand, if the elections that brought a government to power are seen as rigged or unfair, and the subsequent government does not govern in a democratic manner, it will not enjoy any of the benefits associated with democracy. Indeed, it will find it ever harder to govern at all.

The challenge facing nascent and established democracies alike is to ensure that elections are couched in a democratic spirit, and backed up by strong institutions that can ensure and sustain electoral integrity.

The outgoing president has paved the way for peaceful transition. It now befalls president-elect Buhari to govern in a democratic spirit, strengthening public institutions and ensuring that forthcoming elections at local or parliamentary level do not revert to the old ways.

Let us hope that Nigeria’s recent elections were not a lucky exception but instead signal a new democratic departure from which other countries in Africa and beyond can draw inspiration as they too face the complicated and sometimes perilous challenge of managing political transition.

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