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Deciding fate of a young democracy

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democracySIR: Unquestionably the most closely-fought in Nigeria’s turbulent history, the presidential election tomorrow offers both promise and peril for Africa’s most populous country.

Nigeria’s potential is immense if it can harness the dividends of democracy and its demography. Both are on show in these elections. About three quarters of the country’s 170 million people are under-35 years; half under-18. The youthful demographic distribution partly explains the passion in these forthcoming elections: many of the participants will be voting for the first time. Blissfully unconstrained by the troubles of their country’s past, these young voters simply want a country that promises them a better future.

Since the end of military rule in May 1999, Nigeria has enjoyed 16 years of uninterrupted civilian rule, the longest in its history. Over this period, the judiciary has emerged as a major stabilizing influence in elections, and institutions for fighting corruption have been established, albeit with mixed results.

The benefits of these advances are evident in the closeness of the imminent ballot. Nigerians have a choice between two parties – the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) – each with a genuine chance of winning the presidency. This is progress.

In the immediate term, however, the management of these elections has been beset by challenges of digital technology. In an effort to confront the country’s reputation for controversial elections, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will deploy a new biometric voter identification solution for the first time. How this experiment works could determine the outcome of the elections as well as their acceptability.

Despite the progress and possibilities, the presidential election is pregnant with peril. The ballot takes place as the country battles brutal, extremist violence in the north-eastern states master-minded by the dreaded Boko Haram sect, which killed over 11,000 last year alone, has displaced nearly two million people, and recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

This is a dire humanitarian situation that also poses challenges for election administration.

Together with inter-communal violence in the north-central states and resource militancy in the resource-rich Niger Delta, however, this violence has stretched the resources of Nigeria’s internal security institutions and somewhat foregrounds the forthcoming elections.

To overcome them, the two leading presidential candidates – incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and his challenger and former military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari – must take personal responsibility to set a more civil tone, condemn and hold to account their supporters who use hate speech or incite violence, and commit unequivocally to accepting the outcome of the polls.

The military must respect the human rights that the extremists flout, while staying neutral from election politics.

Nigeria’s stability as the anchor of sub-Saharan Africa matters to the world.
 
Chidi Odinkalu,NHRC Chairman.



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