Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Sunday, September 2

Nigeria's elections, four months on

About four months ago, Nigeria held elections that Jendayi Frazer, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs called "seriously flawed and a great disappointment." However, Nigeria has Africa's biggest population, supplies 12 percent of American oil imports (our fourth biggest supplier), and is the second-largest importer of American wheat. It's also not terribly stable - Foreign Policy magazine's Failed States Index puts it at number 22 on the list of states most vulnerable to failure. Thus, it came as no great surprise when Frazer went on to say that "the stakes are too great to walk away," and that the US should instead engage with Nigeria and accompany on its bumpy democratic journey. Frazer outlined three main areas that need particular improvement.

First, the democratic system - and in particular the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) - needs to be reformed so that the next elections are fair and transparent. The EU observation team last week issued its final report on the April elections, saying it has "no confidence" in the results, a statement that drew sharp criticism from the still-unreformed INEC. Additionally, Frazer urged the government to allow the electoral tribunals that are hearing legal challenges to the vote to proceed.

In late August, Yar'Adua established an Electoral Commission that will be charged with reforming the electoral system. Its 22-members include representatives of civil society groups that were critical of the election, and is chaired by a former chief justice. However, critics - including opposition candidates Atiku Abubakar (of Action Congress) and Muhammadu Buhari (of the All Nigeria People's Party) - charge that this step is premature, since the court challenges to the election are still proceeding. However, while some state races may be overturned, as Africa Confidential puts it, there is virtually zero chance that Yar'Adua's victory will be. Skeptics like the local Alliance for Credible Elections also doubt that serious reform will materialize when the president of the Senate, David Mark, was a major beneficiary of unfair electoral practices.

Secondly, according to Frazer, security in the Niger Delta needs to improve, which will be achieved by promoting economic development and tackling corruption. Lots of government money goes to the region, but a much smaller amount makes it past the regional officials. Also, apparently, active engagement of US private enterprise is imporant - an idea that has also been given a good deal of attention by Donald Hefling, the State Department's acting West Africa director.

The Delta, however, continues to threaten to spin out of control. The region's main city, Port Harcourt, was swept by a wave of street violence between gangs in August. After several days, the military intervened and clashed with the gangsters, leaving at least 40 people dead.

The third area Frazer highlighted was the need to engage in political and economic reform - fighting corruption, increasing transparency...and enacting bilateral trade agreements with America.

While efforts to tackle corruption haven't been too aggressive yet, one former state governor has been convicted of corruption, and five more are facing charges. Additionally, Yar'Adua's pick for Finance Minister - Shamsudeen Usman - is well respected, and other cabinet members come from the opposition. However, the parliamentary speaker has recently come under fire for spending $5 million in government funds on refurbishing her and her deputy's houses.

So not too much progress yet. But, many observers say that with time, we might see Yar'Adua take a more proactive approach. According to Peter Lewis, a Nigeria expert at Johns Hopkins: "Those that know him say he is nobody's puppet. But there's a sense that Yar'Adua is going to take some time to get out from under Obasanjo's shadow," a sentiment that is also echoed by the International Crisis Group's Nnamdi Obasi, in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations. The Economist also remarks on Yar'Adua's good reputation.

And in the meantime - while corruption and insecurity and broken democratic institutions remain - Nigeria hasn't imploded, it doesn't look like the military will be retaking control any time soon, and the oil continues to flow, despite the efforts of Delta rebels and gangs. So things could be worse.