Nigeria's precedent for peaceful democracy

One key to Nigeria's historic presidential election, in which an incumbent lost, was a peace committee that worked to mediate disputes and suppress violence. It set a model for the rest of Africa.

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan (L) and his election opponent Muhammadu Buhari pose after signing a peace accord in Abuja just days before the March 28 election.

A healthy democracy relies heavily on private watchdogs – either civic groups or journalists – to keep a check on voter fraud, campaign lies, or the undue influence of money. In the run-up to a March 28-29 election, Nigeria decided to create a new type of democracy protector: the peace committee.

The panel consisted of esteemed clergy, businesspeople, international statesmen, and a former head of state, all of whom worked as activists for peace to end Nigeria’s history of electoral violence.

It mostly worked. Their mediation efforts, along with a new tamper-proof voting system, helped Nigeria achieve a historic result. For the first time since the country’s transition from military rule in 1999, an incumbent president lost.

In fact, with the peace committee on his case, President Goodluck Jonathan called the winner, Muhammadu Buhari, to graciously acknowledge defeat and promise a successful transfer of power. “Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” Mr. Jonathan said.

In return, Mr. Buhari was just as gracious, making this point: “Our country has now joined the community of nations that have used the ballot box to peacefully change an incumbent president in a free and fair election.”

Such a handover is still rare on the continent. Nigeria has now set a example for the many other African nations still struggling with leaders who have clung to power far too long.

By its mere creation, the peace panel served as a reminder to Nigerians of their potential to overcome tribal, religious, or other volatile differences in the election. It was also a timely counterpoint to the violence of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

Yet the committee also worked behind the scenes to negotiate promises from the political parties. Twice in three months, it brought the presidential candidates together to sign a pledge of nonviolence. The image of Buhari and Jonathan hugging each other left a strong impression on their supporters that an election should not be a fight to the finish, with violence an option.

As democracy has taken root on the continent, much of Africa now has a “fledgling culture of trust emerging from the dust of terrible, violent conflicts,” says William Sweeney, head of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, which assists African nations in their voting. And in recent years, the United Nations has helped many African nations set up peace councils to help resolve a range of disputes. By creating a peace committee to guide its election, Nigeria has set a useful example for others in how to safeguard a democracy.

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