The New Normal In Africa: Beyond the Nigerian Elections, By Olúfémi Táíwò
The world, especially Europe and North America, is exhaling now. The Nigerian elections are over. Nigeria is still there; all the dire predictions of collapse, break-up, mayhem, and other terrible things foretold have not happened. A percentage of the felicitations directed at Nigeria, its government, and its people likely has less to do with the success of the elections and the general comportment of governor and governed. It probably has more to do with thanking them for sparing the world of gory spectacles of killings, maiming, movement of displaced persons and outstretched arms for new alms to deal with the problem. What just happened in Nigeria is not an exception, much less a rare one. What just took place in Nigeria reflects the new normal that is taking shape in Africa. It is yet another instance of what is becoming commonplace there. Of course, if you were to follow the news in the Euro-American world, you would be right to think otherwise.
No doubt, what just took place in Nigeria is significant. In certain respects, it is historical in the specific context of Nigeria. But, in light of what has been trending in Africa in recent years, it is nowhere near extraordinary. Yes, for the first time in Nigeria’s history of democracy, an incumbent president at the head of a ruling party lost an election. As if that was not enough, the losing incumbent graciously conceded defeat and promised to ensure a smooth transition of power. Nonetheless, the elections, especially the state and local versions, have not been without their share of untoward incidents, electoral malpractices, violence even, up to and including murders. But the general judgment is that not only have they been free and fair, the electorate has deemed them to be so.
Additionally, we need to begin to acknowledge the near routine nature of the Nigerian case in the wider African context. Since the latest eruption of the democratic struggle — I call it Africa’s second struggle for freedom — we have witnessed an improved soil for the germination of representative democracy and its flowering in some cases. Benin, the first country in the continent to give military rule the boot through the instrumentality of the sovereign national conference, has had smooth, almost boring, transitions from one democratic administration to another beginning in 1991 and unbroken till now. This includes a return to power for two terms of the last military ruler of the country, Mathieu Kerekou, who was kicked out in 1991. When it was rumoured that he might not have outgrown his dictatorial pedigree and was planning to change the constitution for an illegal third term in 2006, he squelched it by announcing that not only was such a move not in the cards, he did not even give the appearance of not going along with term-limits. He vacated office without any fuss at the conclusion of his second term. Sierra Leone, a collapsed state if there was one, has gone through a transition from the ruling party to the opposition. When Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore tried, with the complicity of the National Assembly to elongate his tenure, the people got out on the streets and he is cooling his heels in exile in Côte d’Ivoire now. And we are witnessing Burundians telling their sit-tight president that he should not seek an illegal third term.
In 2008, the winner of the presidential election in Ghana won by a whisker. The losing candidate decided that four years was not too long to wait to unseat the winning party. When the incumbent president died in office, his vice president, who went on to win the presidential election for the ruling party in 2012, succeeded him. The losing candidate headed to court, not the streets.
In Zambia, in 2011, the incumbent president lost in his re-election bid. He conceded defeat, lamenting: “we just did not reach the electorate this time around.” Lastly, in 2012, the people of Senegal used the ballot to unseat an incumbent who manipulated the constitution and his handpicked Constitutional Court to secure eligibility for an unconstitutional third term. The Senegalese people thought differently.
In all the above cases, the usual expectation in the Euro-American media of descent into chaos was denied. Transitions have become routine in Tanzania, Senegal, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia, Benin, Ghana, Mali, even with the military misadventure of 2011; and Nigeria just joined the list. Tunisia has found a way to strengthen the possibility of democratic rule with a new constitution that marks a beginning on the path to the separation of religion and the state.
This is why I think that despite countries like Zimbabwe, Togo, Uganda, Sudan, and now, Burundi, the movement in Africa is towards the recognition of the fundamental tenet of modern political philosophy: the principle of governance by consent. And its associated principles are also on the ascendancy in the continent: the recognition of the rights of the individual to life, civil rights, and limits to the power of the state.
This is the new normal in Africa. The world needs to recognise it and letting Africa know that the world will never again abet unconstitutional rule. While we celebrate the news from Nigeria, we should resist any attempt to turn it into a spectacle. It is only normal that losers concede and congratulate winners in the spirit of true sportsmanship. Africans are more committed than ever before to ensuring that they only live under governments that are chosen by them in free and fair elections. Maybe the ultimate significance of the Nigerian elections and the behaviour of its principal participants is that their rulers are beginning to take notice and behave accordingly.
Olúfémi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.