Nigeria’s Renewed Hope for Democratic Development

When the Union Jack was lowered in Nigeria on October 1, 1960, the potential of Africa’s most populous nation seemed boundless—and that was before its abundant reserves of petroleum and natural gas were fully known. However, Nigeria has since underperformed in virtually every area. A massive fuel shortage, just days before the historic change in political leadership, underlined how criminalized and dysfunctional the oil sector had become.

On May 29, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president since 2010, will transfer power to a former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari. Despite important policy reforms, Jonathan will be remembered mainly for his unusual name and the failure to defeat Boko Haram. Similar transfers of power will take place in other federal and state offices. As a result of the March election, a new coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has prized a commanding share of government positions from Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

Will Nigeria’s new leaders uncover a path to democratic stability and economic progress? There are reasons to be hopeful. It took a former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, to sharply reduce the risk of military coups as an elected president, 1999-2007. Now, another former military strongman, Buhari, and his coalition party have rekindled hope for radically improved governance and democratic development.

What explains this potential turnaround? First, the 2015 elections were the most credible the country has experienced since constitutional government was restored in 1999. Second, the winning party brought together political leaders of two traditionally antagonistic subnational groups: the Hausa-Fulani of the north and the Yoruba of the southwest. Third, with Buhari as commander-in-chief, the armed forces are expected to rout Boko Haram and enable 1.5 million displaced persons to return to their communities.

In addition, competitive democracy will likely continue: The PDP, which has governed Nigeria for 16 straight years, is battered but not decimated. It retains political sway in Jonathan’s Delta region and in neighboring states of the southeast. Supported by these two zones, as well as constituencies it won elsewhere in the federation, the party’s fortunes can revive. Whether this happens will depend on the skills of a revamped leadership and whether the APC coalition fragments or coheres.

Nigeria is making progress in other ways: The core institutions of Nigeria’s federal democracy, such as the judiciary, have withstood decades of political turbulence. The Central Bank and the Electoral Commission have improved in capacity and integrity, while the National Bureau of Statistics publishes reliable policy reports.

Despite these improvements, there is an extensive list of challenges awaiting Buhari and the APC government. They include: ending the Boko Haram insurgency; promoting the socio-economic advance of the largely Muslim and impoverished northern region; overhauling the criminalized petroleum sector; improving the core infrastructures of electricity, water supply, and public transport; drastically reducing corruption in state institutions; and rapidly increasing jobs in agriculture, agro-processing, and light industry.

Nigeria also illustrates the central dilemma of “Rising Africa”:  an expanding consumer market and middle class alongside persistent poverty. Inequity in this nation of 175 million is egregious. Many millionaires are spawned as champagne consumption rises and private airplane ownership soars. These excesses, based largely on access to state resources, can be redirected to transformative and sustainable growth. Moreover, millions of Nigeria’s overseas residents have the knowledge, professional skills, and personal income to help transform their country, following the examples set by East and Southeast Asian diasporas.

Endowed with federal institutions similar to those of the United States, Nigeria belongs to a small club of multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracies. Buhari has proven his democratic convictions by thrice competing in flawed elections before succeeding on a fourth attempt. His vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is a high-ranking legal advocate and former attorney-general of Lagos State. In a world in which Islamic fundamentalism and Western liberalism seem to be in mortal combat, Nigerian Muslim politicians are as committed to constitutional democracy as their non-Muslim counterparts. When power is transferred in Nigerian public squares on May 29, we should briefly set aside the incessant reports of global turmoil and join in the celebrations.