By Bob Dewar

If you had visited Nigeria twelve months ago and came back now, you would feel the difference. The upcoming 2011 elections are one big reason why.

Could this be the start to a new deal between state and individual in Nigeria? Will there be a level playing field? Will big politicians campaign on policy issues that make a difference to the people? Will this campaign show democratic maturity, choosing the best person because of the best policies?

Or will poorer behaviour prevail, the habitual string-pulling for personal, vested interests? And will there be a worrying intensification of north-south regional politics?

Most senior Nigerians are cautious. They will not answer yes to all the first set of questions. They worry about political finger-pointing and claims that the 'north' or the 'south' deserve this or that. They point to patronage and money and how power works. But many hope for better things such as basic services - including electricity - and opportunities.

With electoral reform on the move, civil society is becoming energised. But apathy is still a risk if the coming period - including the crucial primaries - does not promise real change.

The context is more encouraging. A new president, Goodluck Jonathan, is in charge and has made clear he wants credible elections. As Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) he has also shown the way, insisting on firm support for the democratic winner in the recent Cote d'Ivoire elections and sanctions on the loser (the former incumbent).

Other senior politicians also say they want credible Nigerian elections. A respected Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Chairman, Professor Attahiru Jega, has been appointed. Africans badly want their superpower and largest democracy to set a good example. They certainly want better elections to be held in Nigeria than those of 2007,which had serious rigging and violence flaws.

Goodluck President

President Jonathan is the third Head of State to take over democratically in the last 11 years, and the second genuine civilian to do so. He will hope to be re-elected by getting things done. But his chances are not guaranteed and his first challenge will be within the primaries of his own ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). Four senior northern PDP figures, Atiku Abubakar, Ibrahim Babangida, Aliyu Gusau and Bukola Saraki, put their names forward, then finally chose Atiku as their 'consensus' choice to challenge Jonathan.

The PDP has never been more divided. Its internal pact on zoning - alternating candidates between regions - is under threat, with the north arguing that the deal was for control to stay with them during 2011. Former opposition complaints that the PDP want a one-party state have now been transformed into speculation over whether it will split.

Opposition groupings are understandably buoyant and hope to gain ground, led by a range of old personalities like Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change in the north (CPC) and Bola Tinubu of Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the southwest. To mount a national challenge to the PDP, interregional alliances will be needed, so there is also an opportunity for the southeast to play a significant part in the eventual presidential race line-ups.

Encouragingly, some younger reformers are running; some for second governorship terms, such as Babatunde Fashola (ACN) who has had an impressive first term improving Lagos State; others for the presidency, such as Nuhu Ribadu (ACN), the former anti-corruption boss, and Pat Utomi (Social Democratic Mega Party).

Can this new political generation challenge the system by forcing others to debate policies and performance rather than just running old-fashioned campaigns based on personalities and the sizes of war-chests?

This could be the most competitive and potentially divisive election since democracy returned in 1999. That poses real risks of poor behaviour, rigging and violence in 'hot spots' such as the Niger Delta by cynical political and criminal interests. The security forces are stretched. But competition should be good for democracy if those risks are managed.

The imminent primaries may be as vulnerable to spikes of violence as the elections proper. Many predict the PDP primary is where the next president will be chosen. The INEC needs to 'regulate' the process, ensuring transparency and compliance with party constitutions so that credible candidates emerge.

Integrity and Security

The integrity of the voters' register has long been an issue. Professor Jega rightly wants to overhaul it and argued to move the polls to April to give time. There has already been a delay over procurement. It's vital that there are no more problems over the high tech equipment - itself a risk given Nigeria's poor infrastructure - or training or logistics.

Security is another big issue. The new Inspector General of Police, Hafiz Ringim, has good ideas, but delivery becomes more difficult the further from the centre one gets. His task, like Jega's, is herculean - ensuring adequate security at 120,000 polling stations (including the ballots and boxes as they move up the chain, often where rigging happens); and ensuring every policeman is neutral when confronting local governors and politicians, whatever political deals are made centrally.

With constructive international community friends, Britain is doing its best to help with technical support, provided the political will remains for credible polls. This is an important opportunity to build domestic and international confidence. Nigeria's modernisation, progress and reform is what the world, and international investors, need.

But great expectations need good leadership at all levels. Effective leadership can modernise and transform the state, press on with political and economic reform, help Nigeria achieve its aspirations and punch its real weight at home and abroad.

All Nigeria's politicians need to come out publicly against violence, rigging and hate speech and in favour of peaceful elections conducted fairly and with mutual respect. 'Do or die' politics, which can bring aggression and incite division, are counter-productive in this hugely diverse country. Politicians must work hard to prevent conflict - and, if it happens, to stop it spreading, especially if there is an underlying ethnic or religious dimension.

There will be winners. There will be losers. That's democracy. Reconciliation afterwards will be more important. International standards of behaviour would enable Nigeria to show that Nigerians want democracy themselves, and that they are not seeking it just because the rest of Africa and the world wants it. And credible elections can show that Nigeria wants democracy in the interests of its citizens, not merely in the interests of its elite.

(Bob Dewar is the British High Commissioner in Abuja, Nigeria.)


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