A New Nigeria

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My country has just completed three rounds of federal and state elections that have been regarded by most Nigerians and acknowledged by the international community as the most free and fair in our history.

This is a considerable accomplishment in a nation of some 150 million people who have experienced military rule and suffered a recurring history of doubtful elections in much of the 50 years since securing independence from Great Britain in 1960.

In May 2010, Goodluck Jonathan assumed full responsibilities of the presidency in an orderly constitutional transition of power following the death of former President Umaru Musa Yar Adua.

President Jonathan pledged to ensure that the elections set for 2011 would be free and fair. Thereafter, he consulted extensively and set in motion a process to redeem this commitment.

In October, he appointed a respected expert, professor Attahiru Jega, as chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and invested him with full powers to ensure that high standards of integrity and effectiveness would guide the conduct of the elections and the counting of votes.

These decisions were not popular with all our politicians and their supporters; change rarely is.

Predictably, there was some resistance, despite Mr. Jega’s exemplary efforts to make the elections credible, free and fair.

And the elections were – acclaimed to have been substantially so by both local and international observers.

Still, claims of a resurgence of some of our old election demons were the pretext for the senseless and wanton post-electoral violence and destruction and formal complaints of electoral malpractices from some of the contestants.

Needless to say, the courts will have an opportunity to review all allegations of abuse and the chips will fall where they may. The president has also pledged that those responsible for the post-election carnage and any proven electoral offenses will be brought to justice.

Nigeria is a robust, developing but still imperfect democracy, which has striven with immeasurable success to excel in this election and surmount a legacy of ethnic and religious tensions.

We are a federal republic with a population – comprising some 250 distinct ethnic identities – that is largely Muslim in the north and Christian in the south. Countries, including leading democracies, which have themselves contended with ethnic, racial or religious tension and strife, better appreciate that overcoming deep-seated mistrust in sections of a diverse polity requires patience, wisdom and understanding.

No person can attain the presidency of Nigeria without widespread support across ethnic and religious lines. This is indeed one of the imperatives of our constitution. The person elected as president must win not just the highest number of votes cast at the election (Mr. Jonathan received almost double the number of votes – 22.5 million – of his closest rival’s 12.2 million votes), but must also obtain “not less than one quarter of the votes cast … in each of at least two-thirds of the 36 states of the Federation.”

Mr. Jonathan met this latter condition in 31 states.

Sadly, the deplorable violence that erupted in several northern states in the country in the aftermath of the presidential election, which tended to overshadow the otherwise remarkable electoral process and success that Nigeria has just witnessed, was mostly an orchestrated response to unexpected or undesired electoral outcomes. The carnage was fueled further by an incendiary mix of ignorance, deliberate misinformation and falsehood, massive youth unemployment and disillusionment.

© Copyright 2011 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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