ABUJA, Nigeria — The news seemed ominous: an election postponed after millions of voters had already cast their ballots. The vote rescheduled, and then postponed again. Tally sheets were missing and the fate of the marked ballots was unclear. Allegations of sabotage and cries of outrage came from the opposition.
Despite the chaos, this could actually be a major step forward for democracy in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.
Nigeria, with a booming economy and cultural influence, sees itself as a leader on the continent and a candidate for a future permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. But its three general elections since the end of military rule in 1999 have been riddled with fraud and violence, a major embarrassment for the country and a source of mounting anger among fed-up voters.
The country’s last general election, in 2007, was a disaster — European Union observers said it was among the worst they had ever witnessed, anywhere. The current elections come at a time of upheaval on the continent, with a disputed vote turned violent in Ivory Coast and a tide of protests against longtime authoritarian regimes in North Africa.
Nigeria has a chance to set an example in democracy, but it won’t be easy.
“This election is a defining moment for Nigeria,” said Oronto Douglas, one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s top advisers.
“If we have elections that are less than credible, I don’t know what will happen. There may be violence,” said Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, a former government minister who now supports an opposition candidate.
Jonathan last year appointed a new electoral commissioner in an attempt to restore public faith in elections. Charged with the herculean task is Attahiru Jega, a respected academic with a reputation for being incorruptible. It was Jega who took the drastic step of calling off the election last Saturday when tally sheets and ballots failed to reach some of the 120,000 polling stations.
The parliamentary, presidential and gubernatorial elections have all been postponed; the voting will now be held on April 9, 16 and 26. On Thursday, about 15 percent of the parliamentary elections were pushed back even further, to April 26, because officials don't have ballots for the races.
While election observers expressed disappointment about the change of dates — especially since as many as 15 million ballots had already been cast, raising concerns about voter fatigue and the whereabouts of those ballots — they say that it is in fact a good sign that the election has been postponed. Previous elections might just have gone ahead with made-up ballots and results.
“This time they actually wanted to count the ballots,” said one Western observer in the capital, Abuja.
Jega scrapped the old, inflated voter roll — which listed Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson among its ranks — and put in place a $580 million voter registration system that relies on fingerprints and photographs. This sophisticated system was initially delayed by technical problems and other issues, and criticized for its cost, but has since been largely deemed a success, with 73 million people registered.
El-Rufai cites the case of a village in Kaduna, his home state, as an example of prior problems. An estimated 50,000 votes from Jankasa village were counted in the last election — but only 4,000 voters are officially registered according to the new biometric system.
“By the single act of fingerprint registration, Jega has eliminated the main method of vote-rigging,” said El-Rufai.
Joe Clark, a former Canadian prime minister and a co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s election observing mission, said he was initially skeptical about this high-tech, expensive method of voter registration. But he admits that it has been a success, and an example of Nigerian innovation and dynamism.
“Nigeria has the resources and it has the skills to do things that other countries are too small to do,” said Clark. “If the system works here, it could be a model for the developing world.”
However, there are still concerns about the ballots already cast and the fact the some people have already seen what the ballots look like, potentially spurring forgeries. There are also concerns that vote riggers may turn in greater numbers to other more blunt methods of fraud, such as snatching ballot boxes.
Nigeria’s unusual election system requires voters to register at their local polling stations between 8 a.m. and noon, and then hang around to vote in the afternoon — a method of preventing voting at multiple polls, since no car traffic is allowed on election day. At the end of the day, results are publicly posted at the polling station.
Many Nigerians are deeply suspicious about the election being rescheduled twice. Hussaini Abdu, Nigeria director for ActionAid, the anti-poverty agency, said that he suspected sabotage behind the late arrival of the tally sheets that caused the postponement. He is concerned that there could be violence if the election is less than free and fair.
“Nigerians are more vigilant now than they were in 2007,” Abdu said. “So there could be more violence — they are willing to take any measure to prevent electoral fraud. And they don’t believe in the courts, so they are willing to take measures into their own hands.”
Jonathan, the former vice president, took over from President Umaru Yar’Adua during his prolonged illness and formally became president after his death last May. Jonathan said this week that he backed Jega’s decision to reschedule the election.
“What happened is another demonstration that the country and the electoral body is totally committed to ensuring that they conduct credible elections,” he told reporters during an event in Abuja.
Jonathan has previously said that he will not stand in the next presidential election, and his advisers say that he considers it part of his legacy to preside over credible elections.
Ken Wiwa, a former activist who now advises Jonathan on international affairs, said that Nigeria’s economic strength gives the country leverage in Africa.
“We have the economic muscle and the population to have a preponderant influence on our neighbors,” Wiwa said. “I think we have emerged from a few years when Nigeria was a pariah in the international community, and Nigeria is just recovering now.”
Many Nigerians were stung when U.S. President Barack Obama did not visit the country in 2009, instead choosing to stop in neighboring Ghana, an implicit reward for Ghanaians after peaceful elections in which the president relinquished power despite winning 49 percent of the vote.
“In Nigeria we have to be honest with ourselves,” Wiwa said. “We have to take ourselves seriously before anyone else will.”