Ordinary Nigerians saved Africa’s largest democracy from descending into voter mayhem

“What do you mean, I can’t vote?”
“What do you mean, I can’t vote?”
Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
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Remember the awkward scenes of president Goodluck Jonathan being unable to vote initially because the voter card technology had failed? The country had just spent around $150 million on the Chinese-made machines aimed at injecting transparency into the electoral process. Many political players had been pushing back against the technology for weeks, the electoral commission was under intense pressure and its chairman’s job had been threatened. To compound matters, few voters understood how the machines were supposed to work and even fewer had any trust in the ability of the machines to prevent fraud. So when the machines broke down on the president that was the point where Nigeria’s delicate electoral process could have fallen apart. It didn’t.

Several polling stations opened late because electoral staff and materials arrived hours after polls were scheduled to begin. This meant many were unable to vote for hours on end.

Nigerians from Sokoto to Port Harcourt, from Maiduguri to Lagos stayed out in long snaking queues in the “sun, rain and then in the dark” as president-elect Muhammadu Buhari referenced in his acceptance speech. In the parts of the north the possibility of Boko Haram attacks on voters was a real threat.

Delays create uncertainty and suspicion in the electoral systems of some African countries–and Nigeria is no stranger to such controversy. The worry is ballot boxes will mysteriously appear already stuffed with votes, names strangely disappear from the voters’ roll and the final tally of votes magically ends up exceeding the number of registered voters.

Voters often do not take kindly to such delays. Chaos could have easily broken out like it did in 2011,  sending one of Africa’s most closely contested elections horribly off-track. But that didn’t happen. Instead of rampaging at the fear of being cheated, millions of Nigerians waited patiently for their turn to vote.

The electoral process itself was somewhat convoluted. Polls opened at 8am but voters could only vote from 1:30pm onwards because they first had to go through a lengthy registration process where their voter cards and biometric details had to be verified by the notorious card readers. Voters endured this too. Some even slept overnight outside polling stations to be first in line.  The counting started late into the night and in many places the counting was done by torch lights due to the  country’s notorious power cuts.

By conceding defeat early, president Jonathan took the wind out of the sail of any who may have wanted to foment trouble. But much more credit is due to the Nigerian people, whose composure in the face of trying circumstances ensured that the polls were largely event free.

Democracy works

What we witnessed this weekend is nothing short of an absolute triumph of Nigerian democracy. There were no shortage of reasons to expect that the polls would degenerate into violence even before the final results had been announced.

Instead, what we witnessed was a populace that showed maturity and courage when it came down to the wire.  Democracy works best when the people have faith that the process – even if flawed – will produce results that reflect the will of masses.

And that is exactly what these elections delivered for Nigeria. No doubt other countries on the continent will take a big cue from this. It was a powerful demonstration that African elections, often held in highly charged and polarized setting, do not have to end in bloodshed. More importantly, it has demonstrated that the power to ensure a peaceful poll, lies not so much with the politicians but with the people themselves.