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Democracy, Deferred: On Nigeria’s Dysfunctional Election By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



Last week, Victor, a carpenter, came to my
Lagos home to fix a broken chair. I asked him
whom he preferred as Nigeria’s next president:
the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, or his
challenger, Muhammadu Buhari.“I don’t have a
voter’s card, but if I did, I would vote for
somebody I don’t like,” he said. “I don’t like
Buhari. But Jonathan is not performing.”
Victor sounded like many people I know: utterly
unenthusiastic about the two major candidates
in our upcoming election.
Were Nigerians to vote on likeability alone,
Jonathan would win. He is mild-mannered and
genially unsophisticated, with a conventional
sense of humor. Buhari has a severe, ascetic air
about him, a rigid uprightness; it is easy to
imagine him in 1984, leading a military
government whose soldiers routinely beat up
civil servants. Neither candidate is articulate.
Jonathan is given to rambling; his unscripted
speeches leave listeners vaguely confused.
Buhari is thick-tongued, his words difficult to
decipher. In public appearances, he seems
uncomfortable not only with the melodrama of
campaigning but also with the very idea of it. To
be a democratic candidate is to implore and
persuade, and his demeanor suggests a man
who is not at ease with amiable consensus. Still,
he is no stranger to campaigns. This is his third
run as a presidential candidate; the last time, in
2011, he lost to Jonathan.
This time, Buhari’s prospects are better.
Jonathan is widely perceived as ineffectual, and
the clearest example, which has eclipsed his
entire presidency, is his response to Boko
Haram. Such a barbaric Islamist insurgency
would challenge any government. But while
Boko Haram bombed and butchered, Jonathan
seemed frozen in a confused, tone-deaf
inaction. Conflicting stories emerged of an ill-
equipped army, of a corrupt military leadership,
of northern elites sponsoring Boko Haram, and
even of the government itself sponsoring Boko
Jonathan floated to power, unprepared, on a
serendipitous cloud. He was a deputy governor
of Bayelsa state who became governor when his
corrupt boss was forced to quit. Chosen as vice
president because powerbrokers considered him
the most harmless option from southern
Nigeria, he became president when his northern
boss died in office. Nigerians gave him their
goodwill—he seemed refreshingly unassuming—
but there were powerful forces who wanted him
out, largely because he was a southerner, and it
was supposed to be the north’s ‘turn’ to occupy
the presidential office.
And so the provincial outsider suddenly thrust
onto the throne, blinking in the chaotic glare of
competing interests, surrounded by a small
band of sycophants, startled by the hostility of
his traducers, became paranoid. He was slow to
act, distrustful and diffident. His mildness came
across as cluelessness. His response to criticism
calcified to a single theme: His enemies were out
to get him. When the Chibok girls were
kidnapped, he and his team seemed at first to
believe that it was a fraud organized by his
enemies to embarrass him. His politics of
defensiveness made it difficult to sell his
genuine successes, such as his focus on the long-
neglected agricultural sector and infrastructure
projects. His spokespeople alleged endless
conspiracy theories, compared him to Jesus
Christ, and generally kept him entombed in his
own sense of victimhood.
The delusions of Buhari’s spokespeople are
better packaged, and obviously free of
incumbency’s crippling weight. They blame
Jonathan for everything that is wrong with
Nigeria, even the most multifarious, ancient
knots. They dismiss references to Buhari’s past
military leadership, and couch their wilful
refusal in the language of ‘change,’ as though
Buhari, by representing change from Jonathan,
has also taken on an ahistorical saintliness.
I remember the Buhari years as a blur of
bleakness. I remember my mother bringing
home sad rations of tinned milk, otherwise
known as “essential commodities”—the
consequences of Buhari’s economic policy. I
remember air thick with fear, civil servants
made to do frog jumps for being late to work,
journalists imprisoned, Nigerians flogged for not
standing in line, a political vision that cast
citizens as recalcitrant beasts to be whipped into
Buhari’s greatest source of appeal is that he is
widely perceived as non-corrupt. Nigerians have
been told how little money he has, how spare
his lifestyle is. But to sell the idea of an
incorruptible candidate who will fight
corruption is to rely on the disingenuous trope
that Buhari is not his party. Like Jonathan’s
People’s Democratic Party, Buhari’s All
Progressives Congress is stained with
corruption, and its patrons have a checkered
history of exploitative participation in
governance. Buhari’s team is counting on the
strength of his perceived personal integrity: his
image as a good guy forced by realpolitik to
hold hands with the bad guys, who will be
shaken off after his victory.
In my ancestral home state of Anambra, where
Jonathan is generally liked, the stronger force at
play is a distrust of Buhari, partly borne of
memories of his military rule, and partly borne
of his reputation, among some Christians, as a
Muslim fundamentalist. When I asked a relative
whom she would vote for, she said, “Jonathan of
course. Am I crazy to vote for Buhari so that
Nigeria will become a sharia country?”
Nigeria has predictable voting patterns, as all
democratic countries do. Buhari can expect
support from large swaths of the core north,
and Jonathan from southern states. Region and
religion are potent forces here. Vice presidents
are carefully picked with these factors in mind:
Buhari’s is a southwestern Christian and
Jonathan’s is a northern Muslim. But it is not so
simple. There are non-northerners who would
ordinarily balk at voting for a ‘northerner’ but
who support Buhari because he can presumably
fight corruption. There are northern supporters
of Jonathan who are not part of the region’s
Christian minorities.
Delaying the elections is a staggeringly self-
serving act of contempt for Nigerians.
Last week, I was indifferent about the elections,
tired of television commercials and contrived
controversies. There were rumors that the
election, which was scheduled for February 14,
would be postponed, but there always are; our
political space is a lair of conspiracies. I was
uninterested in the apocalyptic predictions.
Nigeria was not imploding. We had crossed this
crossroads before, we were merely electing a
president in an election bereft of inspiration.
And the existence of a real opposition party that
might very well win was a sign of progress in
our young democracy.
Then, on Saturday, the elections were delayed
for six weeks. Nigeria’s security agencies, we
were told, would not be available to secure the
elections because they would be fighting Boko
Haram and needed at least another month and a
half to do so. (Nigeria has been fighting Boko
Haram for five years, and military leaders
recently claimed to be ready for the elections.)
Even if the reason were not so absurd,
Nigerians are politically astute enough to know
that the postponement has nothing to do with
security. It is a flailing act of desperation from
an incumbent terrified of losing. There are fears
of further postponements, of ploys to illegally
extend Jonathan’s term. In a country with the
specter of a military coup always hanging over
it, the consequences could be dangerous. My
indifference has turned to anger. What a
staggeringly self-serving act of contempt for
Nigerians. It has cast, at least for the next six
weeks, the darkest possible shroud over our
democracy: uncertainty.

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