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Elections

Degrees of democracy in a world where one size doesn't fit all

Nigerians will elect a new president on Saturday, in a poll which is expected to be clean enough to mark the country’s ascent to a Western-style democracy. But is that model suitable for the West African nation?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

President Goodluck Jonathan is pipped to win Saturday's ballot

Electoral observers say the presidential ballot could go down in history as the one which broke the pattern of rigging which has served the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) consistent victories since Nigeria's return to civilian rule in 1999.

Tipped to win at the weekend is incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who was propelled into the leadership position last year following the death of his predecessor Umaru Musa Yar'Adua.

In running, the president from the troubled southern Niger Delta region is ignoring an unwritten PDP power-sharing agreement which prevents candidates from the predominantly Islamic north and the Christian south from leading the party for more than two consecutive terms.

Playing games

Challenger Muhammadu Buhari reading from a lectern

Muhammadu Buhari is considered Jonathan's main challenger

Analysts are predicting that Jonathan will lose significant support to his main challenger Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, as voters there try to secure an opportunity to put one of their own into power. The strategy, although not unfamiliar as a voting move, underlines the ethnic and religious divide in the country, and raises the question of whether or not Nigerian politicians can stand for the interests of the entire 150 million-strong population.

"It is incredibly difficult for a politician in Nigeria or someone running for leadership to represent everyone's interests," Sola Tayo of the Africa program at London's Chatham House told Deutsche Welle. "The divides are vast and people have exploited that in the past in their election campaigns."

She says given the sheer size of the country, its citizens' needs are as diverse as diversity itself, and that it would take "a brave politician to stand up and risk alienating their side by saying they have the whole nation at heart."

Unfulfilled promises

Back in the 1970s, after the Biafra crisis, in which the oil-rich southeast tried to secede, the powers-that-were talked of a new age in which petrodollars boost economic development for the benefit of the whole country. But that is not what happened, and the gulf between the rich and poor is now expansive.

Men stand in a creek full of oil, oil all over their legs

Rather than prosperity oil has brought ecological ruin to the Niger Delta

"We can see that the idea of the nation getting rich and happy from oil didn't work," Wolfgang Zeller of Edinburgh University's African Borderlands Research Network (ABORNE) said. "There needs to be more to hold the story together."

Exactly what that is, he says, Nigeria is still trying to figure out. Although he is skeptical about the virtues of trying to implant into a Western-style democracy into the African state and others like it.

"There are parts of the continent which was never colonized, why should they start a Western-style democracy?" Zeller asked, adding that there are other models which also take issues such as accountability, transparency and human rights seriously. "It is a very Eurocentric idea that we have the keys to the solution, and it is a problem to think that they can only succeed if they are like us."

African-style democracy

Oil fire

Oil is one of the main things the new leader has to sit down and talk about

He talks about African-style democracy as a hybrid of colonial era remnants such as Nigeria's legal system, which is based almost entirely on English law, and a more African way of doing things without compromising rights values.

"Looking back a long time before colonization, there was always a need to negotiate, to sit down and take time, to respect elders and not to humiliate people in public," he said, adding that we ought to listen to the nuanced things that are being said. "Even if it doesn't look that way from the outside, making group decisions is African-style democracy."

An important part of that model is what Zeller describes as "traditional authority," which in a throwback to the colonial era, sees tribal leaders or chiefs serve as a link between the grassroots and the center of power. Although the chiefs are generally not elected, they still have to deliver on promises made to those they represent.

"Picture a corpulent man dressed in silk & leopard skins during the rain-making festival of his tribe," Zeller said. "After the ceremony he puts his Armani suit back on and talks on his cell phone to a government minister, business associate overseas, or his daughter studying at Princeton."

Botswana, which has held free and fair elections since securing independence in 1966, is considered one of the most successful democracies of Africa, and as Zeller points out, its first president, Seretse Khama, was a chief.

But Sebastian Elischer, research fellow with GIGA Institute of African Affairs in Hamburg, says he’s convinced that different regions require different types of democracy.

"Fifty years ago Germany was not a democracy, but today it is," Elischer said, adding that he doesn't believe any region in the world is cut out for a certain system. "It's about muddling through and familiarizing people with ways of doing things."

Muddling through

Fingerprint being made on a ballot paper

Free and fair elections are the order of the day on Saturday

As far as he is concerned, there's no alternative to the Western model, which he believes can work as long as whoever is running the country can create sustainable and impartial institutions to generate a sense of trust.

That is something that has been missing from Nigerian society for a long time, and which Goodluck Jonathan, with his calls for free and fair elections, and Muhammadu Buhari, who is campaigning on an anti-corruption platform, seem to be saying they will tackle. To what extent such pledges become reality partly depends on the results of Saturday's ballot.

Whatever the outcome, Zeller believes the watching West should take a deep breath and consider Nigeria's recent trajectory.

"Nigeria has had its share of difficult leaders, military leaders who have kept it together through brutal methods," he said. "Historically speaking, it is still at the start of the game, so one shouldn't be too impatient."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

DW.DE