HEAD TO HEAD: Goodluck Jonathan has been both credited and criticised for his leadership, while General Muhammadu Buhari was previously ousted after a coup
THESE DAYS the talk of Nigeria in the West is more about Boko Haram than the important election that is taking place in the most populous, ethnically and religiously diverse country and now the largest economy in Africa.
The Boko Haram threat is very real especially if linked with other groups such as Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda and ISIS that are creating havoc for the west in other parts of the world.
But if we consider that Nigeria already has 12 out of the existing 36 states in the mainly Muslim north of the country that have implemented Sharia law, then we must recognise the importance of these elections because democracy and the good governance it brings can resolve most political problems anywhere in the world.
Nigeria has come a long way in its search for democracy and has managed to work at some of the problems that have gone wrong with its democratic systems, problems that are common in Africa such as power of incumbency, ethnic and religious hegemony and involvement of the military in government.
The military has ruled for 30 of the 55 years of independence and to realign the elections to focus on political parties and their philosophies, principles and policies rather than the religion and ethnicity of the party is an achievement.
There was a time when elections in Nigeria were totally dominated by the ethnic and religious make up of the country: the southern Christians against the Muslim north; the Hausa against the Yoruba and Igbo.
Political parties have to mix all these ingredients in a way that is palatable for the electorate. Ethnicity and religion will continue to dominate elections but the way that Nigeria has managed to deal with them should be a lesson for all of Africa.
A brief history of the 100 years of political party activity in Nigeria may explain in part why this realignment bodes well for the country and why lessons must be learnt beyond its borders.
Herbert Macaulay formed the National Democratic Party in the 1920s to push against indirect rule that allowed the British to rule through the chiefs without political representation from the people.
FACTS: Most recent World Development Indicators (WDI)
By the 1930s, a more radical challenge had emerged from the Nigerian Youth Movement which campaigned for independence.
In the decade that followed, Macaulay had joined forces with Nnamdi Azikiwe to form the National Congress Nigeria and the Cameroons (at the time that German part of the Cameroun was under British administration.)
Their politics was mainly national in content though their main opponent was the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) formed in 1949 with the Sarduana of Sokoto as the leader, signalling the start of the north-south divide.
With the formation of the Action Group by Obafemi Awolowo in 1951, however, it was not just about the North and the South. The Yoruba saw the Action Group as a vehicle for early home rule for Western Nigeria, which Awolowo managed to achieve ahead of independence under a federal dispensation for the whole country in 1960.
NEW DAY: Buhari supporters
NCNC was left as a mainly Igbo party which made a pact and supported the candidacy of Tafawa Balewa of the NPC as prime minister at independence against Awolowo. Though these realignments continued the coup in 1966 and the Biafra War of 1967 to 1970 followed.
One way in which Nigeria dealt with these ethnic and religious insecurities of identities being subsumed by larger majorities was through the creation of more states.
Nigeria had three states at the time of independence in 1960, the Hausa Muslim North, the Yoruba Christian West and the Igbo Christian East. These were increased to four states in 1963, to 12 in 1967, to 19 in 1976, 21 in 1987, 30 in 1994 and to 36 in existence since 1996.
Another way has been the classic realignment that has taken place in 2013 with the formation of a new party the All Progressives Congress from a merger of the Congress for Progressive Change, Action Congress of Nigeria, All Nigeria Peoples Party to take on the might of the Peoples Democratic Party that has dominated politics since the start of the Fourth Republic in 1999.
And with the formation of this new party and the crossing of carpets and the new allegiances this involves, the division between the North and the South and between Muslim and Christian have more blurred and the contest more balanced.
The elections are so keenly contested that the parties have taken the campaign outside the borders.
Ghana has seen a lot of huge billboards of Nigerian politicians and their parties going up. So much so that there is heated discussion of the potential danger to the sovereignty of the country, especially considering the influx of Nigerian students and banks now operating in the country.
WE WANT YOU: Fans of Jonathan take to the streets
Though I am happy that in these elections there are no political dynasties being perpetuated as we find in other parts of the continents, I am disappointed that Nigeria is yet to deal with the influence of the military in democratic politics.
Ex-military men seem to be the moneybags behind the parties and one of them is actually contesting for a second bite of the cherry following the success of Obasanjo.
What is good for citizens in these elections is that they cannot be taken for granted again. They have the power to change governments so that it would make a difference for them.
It is that power that will help the politicians to focus on the safety of the people and the rule of the law, the deepening of participation by a plurality of the people, further human development of the people and sustainable economic opportunity for all.
STATISTICS: How the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance rated Nigeria (source: Mo Ibrahim Foundation)
Other countries in Africa should learn that other issues are more important in elections than ethnicity and religion and that the only way to get good governance is to continue with multi-party democracy.
May the elections be called free and fair and may the best party win.
Ade Sawyerr is a partner at Equinox Consulting, a management consultancy that tackles issues affecting disadvantaged communities in Britain. He also writes about issues facing people in the African diaspora. Follow him on Twitter @adesawyerr
……………………………………………………..100 YEARS OF NIGERIAN POLITICS: A TIMELINE1850s – Britain establishes a presence in Lagos
1861-1914 – Britain consolidates its hold over what it calls the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria and governs by “indirect rule” through local leaders
1914 – Lord Lugard unifies the northern and southern regions under the single name ‘Nigeria’
1960 – Nigeria gains independence with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government.
1966 (January) – Balewa killed in coup. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi heads up military administration.
1966 (July) – Aguyi-Ironsi killed in counter-coup and is replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon
1967 – Three eastern Igbo states secede and declare themselves the Republic of Biafra, sparking a bloody civil war
1970 – Biafran leaders surrender and former Biafran regions are reintegrated into country.
1975 – Gowon flees to Britain and is replaced by Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed, who begins the process of moving federal capital from Lagos to Abuja
1976 – Mohammed is assassinated in failed coup attempt and replaced by his deputy, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo, who helps to introduce an American-style presidential constitution.
1979 – Elections bring Alhaji Shehu Shagari to power.
1983 (August) – Shagari re-elected amid accusations of irregularities.
1983 (December) – Major-General Muhammadu Buhari seizes power in a bloodless coup.
1985 – Ibrahim Babangida seizes power in bloodless coup and curtails political activity.
1993 (June) – Military annuls elections when preliminary results show victory by Chief Moshood Abiola.
1993 (August) – Power transferred to Interim National Government.
1993 (November) – General Sani Abacha seizes power and violently suppresses all opposition.
1998 – Abacha dies and is succeeded by Major-General Abdulsalami Abubakar. Chief Abiola dies in custody a month later.
1999 – Olusegun Obasanjo is sworn in as president.
2000 – Several Northern states adopt Islamic/Sharia law
2003 – Obasanjo re-elected in first civilian-run presidential elections since end of military rule. Obasanjo elected for second term with more than 60 per cent of vote. Opposition parties reject result. EU poll observers cite “serious irregularities”.
2006 – The Senate rejects proposed changes to the constitution which would have allowed President Obasanjo to stand for a third term in 2007.
2007 – Umaru Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party is proclaimed winner of the presidential election.
2009 – Nineteen opposition parties unite to form a “mega-party” to compete against the governing People’s Democratic Party in 2011 elections
2010 – President Umaru Yar’Adua dies after a long illness. Vice-president Goodluck Jonathan, already acting in Yar’Adua’s stead, succeeds him. Nigerians celebrate 50 years of independence
2011 – Goodluck Jonathan wins presidential elections.
2014 – Nigeria marks 100 years as a unified nation.
President Goodluck Jonathan confirms he will seek a second term in office and will be challenged by General Muhammadu Buhari