Nigeria politics: Fast-forward?


The Nigerian Senate has voted to bring forward elections by three months. This cuts the time available to introduce vital electoral reforms, and increases the pressure on the ruling party and incumbent president to clarify their intentions.

On July 21st Nigeria’s Senate approved a constitutional amendment that could alter the country’s election timetable. If approved by the House of Representatives, the amendment will bring polls forward to January 2011–three months earlier than initially scheduled. The change is designed to allow for the settlement of any legal challenges well before the new presidential term starts in May: there is broad agreement that court challenges by defeated rivals (particularly at state governorship level) undermined the authority of the late Umaru Yar’Adua, and slowed government business in the early part of his term.

However, accelerating the electoral process does have a number of potential disadvantages, notably the difficulty of introducing any necessary electoral changes–such as the formulation of a credible voters’ register. Many opposition parties have insisted that the 2011 polls are unlikely to be fair unless there is a fresh voters’ list. The use of a flawed voters’ register, riddled with fictitious names and omitting genuine voters, has enabled unscrupulous politicians and electoral officials to rig past elections, including the 2007 contests that local and international observers deemed not credible.¬†However,¬†such is the complexity of formulating a new register that some democracy campaigners had suggested that the presidential handover be postponed until October 2011 to give theIndependent National Electoral Commission time to produce a new, more accurate list.

Given that this was unpalatable to the political elite, such a deferral was always unlikely. However, bringing the elections forward will increase the pressure on the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to select a presidential candidate. Goodluck Jonathan, the former vice-president who secured the top job on the death of Umaru Yar’Adua, has worked hard to drive forward Nigeria’s stalled reform programme and assert his own authority during his short period in power. This has seen his popularity rise and could well be evidence that he wants to fight for the presidency in 2011. However, under an unwritten arrangement within the PDP, the presidency is supposed to rotate every two terms between the north and south–an important geopolitical divide in Nigeria. As Mr Yar’Adua was from the north and served only one term, there is pressure from within the party for the 2011 presidential candidate to be from the north.

Senior PDP members will seek to act as power brokers, but as each will favour their own choice of successor political tensions will run high. It is not inconceivable that the PDP will break apart over the issue. Although this could be beneficial for democracy in Nigeria in the longer term–the country has long lacked a credible opposition to the PDP–it would probably result in a great deal of acrimony and also political violence in the short term. As it is, the 2011 elections (which will also select national legislators and state governors) are likely to be tumultuous given the numerous factions competing for power, as well as Nigeria’s poor historical record of holding free-and-fair polls. Although Mr Jonathan has been attempting to push forward electoral reform, it appears that he will now have even less time to amend the constitution and implement reforms in time for the 2011 elections.