Democracy or stability (or both)? 


Is it wise for the U.S. State Department to congratulate a newly elected president of a country when their electoral victory accompanies legal challenges and widespread technical irregularities, evidence of voter suppression and outbursts of election-related violence?  

This is an ongoing question for international elections observers, journalists and policymakers — including U.S. officials in other governmental agencies and in Congress — following a statement by the State Department, which congratulated Nigerian president-elect Bola Tinubu for his electoral victory. While noting that “many Nigerians and some of the parties have expressed frustration” about the election process and “shortcomings of technical elements,” this statement, released only four days after the Feb. 25 election, asserts that this “represents a new period for Nigerian politics and democracy.” 

Regardless of the alleged irregularities and present legal challenges to the election, it is clear that this was one of the most competitive elections in Africa’s largest democracy. Unlike any previous election cycle, Nigeria witnessed three parties closely contesting for victory, with one third-party candidate for the Labour Party (LP), Peter Obi, dominating the youth vote — as well as overall vote share — in the national capital state, Lagos. The result is that, according to Nigeria’s Independent National Elections Commission (INEC), while Tinubu won with 37% of the total vote as a candidate for the All Progressives Congress (APC) party, his rival candidates, Atiku Abubakar, from the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), as well as Obi, received 29% and 25% of the vote share, respectively. This was unprecedented given that Tinubu had previously served as a popular governor of Lagos (1999-2007), and because Nigerian politics have historically featured two major parties — the PDP and APC — with other parties playing a minor role, if any. In an episode from the “Foresight Africa Podcast,” (Brookings Institution) Kasirim Nwuke, a former official for the UN Economic Commision for Africa, also suggested that Obi and his campaign garnered a rare case of broad, youth-oriented appeal, despite his ethnic ties to the dominant Christian, Igbo population in the south. 

Though this is a positive development in a country rife with polarization that spans ethnoreligious, economic and regional lines, glaring deficiencies witnessed in the presidential election as well as in the March 18 gubernatorial elections should not be overlooked. In the latter case, the American embassy in Nigeria issued a statement three days later condemning “disturbing acts of violent voter intimidation and suppression” and “ethnically charged rhetoric,” while announcing visa restrictions for those held responsible. 

As explained in an article inForeign Policy,” out of 94.47 million Nigerians with voter registration, only 87 million received voter cards prior to the election, out of which fewer than 25 million cast their votes. 

According to a preliminary report released by a 40-person delegation of former diplomats and experts working with the International Republican Institute (IRI) and National Democratic Institute (NDI) as international elections observers, only 41% of polling sites in Nigeria were operational an hour before voting began on election day. An excessive number of political party members at polling stations, election officials not wearing INEC-issued ID cards as required, and vague restrictions on the voting rights of poll workers, as stipulated in the 2022 Electoral Act, were widespread issues. As the report states, “failures of logistics, challenges with voter registration and voter card distribution, inadequate communication by INEC, lack of transparency in the publication of election data, and unchecked political violence before and during the elections” led to the disenfranchisement of voters throughout the country. As noted in an NPR interview with experts in this NDI/IRI mission, including the American voting rights activist and Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, political violence against poll workers and voters was witnessed firsthand, especially against younger voters in Lagos, who by and large cast their votes for Peter Obi. 

When all of these facts are taken into consideration, it is easy to see why some government officials and policymakers have been puzzled by the State Department’s congratulations, in contrast to its response to the 2022 presidential election in Kenya, when the agency waited for legal questions to be resolved before recognizing William Ruto as president. Since coming to the White House, the Biden Administration has emphasized the notion that the world is entering a new era defined by great-power competition between the United States and China, and between the forces of democracy and autocracy. As concerns mount that Russia and China are courting influence among African leaders through arms sales and contracting of the infamous Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with ties to the Kremlin, as well as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, Washington must act prudently to promote democracy and stability on the continent. 

That begins with taking a more careful approach to how it recognizes victors of disputed elections, as other nations do. In this case, the quick congratulation by Washington can be interpreted as a signal that America prioritizes stability over democratic norms when it concerns developing democracies. Yet, democracy and stable governance are not always mutually exclusive principles. Leaders who win elections widely regarded as flawed, not only garner less legitimacy from the public, but may create domestic instability in manifold ways.  

According to an article in “The Conversation,” Tinubu may reduce the foothold terrorist groups — notably Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa — have enjoyed in the Muslim-majority areas of Nigeria. However, his contested win, his choice to choose a fellow Muslim as vice president — a move that breaks the precedent of power sharing between Muslim and Christian leaders — and his reluctance to condemn violence against Christian Igbos in the south/south-east, do not bode well for internal security and the containment of sectarian violence. What this debate suggests is that the subject of African democracy, in tandem with broader questions about development and regional security, warrants greater attention — and care —  if the Biden Administration hopes to bring American foreign policy goals closer to fruition. 

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