The most undemocratic and politically troubled continent, Africa, has just produced a political sensation—thereby giving, of course indirectly, a lesson of democracy to our own problematic neighbour, Russia. Nigeria has proved that free and fair elections, followed by a handover of political power to the former opposition, are possible in populous, multi-ethnic, oil-dependent, religiously diverse nations lacking a history of democracy.
Nigeria, now a federal republic of some 174 million people, achieved independence from British colonial rule in late 1960—enduring a turbulent subsequent history of territorial problems, civil war, and fierce rule by military juntas. In 1999 a process of democratization started when Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military head of state, was elected president. Taking place in the context of a violent ethnic struggle for control over the oil-producing Niger Delta region, the general election of 2007 (won by Umaru Yar’Adua) was severely flawed and largely condemned by the international community. Yar’Adua died in 2010 and was replaced by the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Around that time, north-east Nigeria started to experience the atrocities of Boko Haram. Finally, Jonathan lost (12.9 to 15.4 million votes) the presidential elections on the 31st of March 2015 to Muhammadu Buhari (aged 72, representing the All Progressives Congress), who himself in 1984 organized a military coup to prevent the fraudulent re-election of a corrupt civil regime.
President-Elect Buhari has claimed that his victory is “historic”. Indeed, never before has a sitting Nigerian president been defeated in an election. The outgoing leader, Goodluck Jonathan, who did not have good luck in the elections, urged his supporters to remain calm and conveyed to Muhammadu Buhari his “best wishes“. Observers have generally praised the election, though there have been allegations of fraud. Is there anything better that we might have expected from these elections in that particular country on that continent?
Russia, too, never experienced democracy before the 1990s. However, the Yeltsin-decade is now viewed by most Russians as a failed “experiment“ with liberal democracy, something shameful and not worth remembering. In fact, we can only guess when free and fair presidential elections will take place for the very first time in Russia (perhaps in 2024?), and whether these elections will result in a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition. For now, we have had to witness the recent political murder of the leader of the Russian opposition. But who knows? A globalizing world is becoming smaller and smaller; positive examples may well prove contagious.