In a year of elections in Africa, few will be more important than Saturday’s poll in Nigeria. The west African oil producer is the continent’s biggest economy, largely by virtue of its huge population, which is closing in on 200m and could double again in the next decades. It is also a bellwether. When, in 2015, Nigeria transitioned peacefully from one democratically elected government to another, it was seen as a milestone.
That is why much rides on this election, particularly after the flawed exercise in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is ample evidence the vote was stolen. If Nigeria can hold a transparent poll, it could do something to restore faith in the continent’s zigzagging progress towards greater democratic accountability.
Unfortunately, the omens are not good. There have already been credible complaints about the conduct of the state in the run-up to election day. An independent newspaper office was raided. The chief justice was suspended for alleged corruption. So close to an election in which the judiciary may play the role of arbiter, that smacked of manipulation. The opposition is already crying foul. In what is becoming a well-thumbed election playbook, it has declared the poll to be rigged even before it has taken place.
If there is reason to be dubious about the electoral process itself, then the principal candidates hardly inspire confidence. On one side, President Muhammadu Buhari is running for four more years. “Running” may be too generous for a candidate who spent extended periods of his first term on a sick bed in London. Though Mr Buhari says he is fully recovered from his mystery illness, campaign speeches that last barely more than a few minutes are not exactly proof of his physical fitness. In interviews, he appears befuddled.
Nor does Mr Buhari have a sterling record. The economy has barely limped out of recession. Security gains have been tenuous. Even his much-vaunted anti-corruption drive has failed to deliver significant scalps nor convincing systematic change.
His main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, is not greatly more convincing. He offers a more free-market approach, promising to float the naira, encourage foreign investment and privatise the state oil monopoly. But Mr Abubakar, a former vice-president, has been at the nexus of politics and business so long that almost no one believes he represents a break from the past. He has been dogged by allegations of corruption, which he denies.
The sad reality of Nigerian leadership is that the elite — whether in military or democratic governments — has siphoned off the country’s oil wealth, leaving the rest of the populace to fend for itself. Shamefully, Nigeria has more people living in absolute poverty than India. Policies that could make an impact, including investment in health, education and infrastructure, have been wilfully neglected.
In a system where candidates jump between political parties as if they were changing buses, personality and money trump policy discussion. It is hardly surprising that even in the historic 2015 election, turnout was a less-than enthusiastic 43 per cent.
Whoever wins, Nigeria’s political system needs an overhaul. For a start, the informal rule that sees power oscillate between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south should be jettisoned. The best candidate this time would have been Yemi Osinbajo, Mr Buhari’s running mate. But as a Christian southerner in a year of the “northerners’ turn”, his candidacy was a non-starter. That is a shame. Nigeria needs all the good leaders it can get.