An election that sizes up Africa’s progress

Nigerians vote for a new president Feb. 25, with a notable upgrade in civic virtues, such as inclusivity, contrition, and ballot integrity.

Supporters of Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi chant during a campaign rally in Lagos, Nigeria, Feb. 11.

With the largest population in Africa, Nigeria matters more than most countries in defining the continent’s progress in democracy. On Feb. 25, its people head to the polls – the first of 10 presidential elections in Africa this year – and already Nigerians are setting new standards in election integrity. With coups on the rise elsewhere in Africa, the world should take note.

One standard was set by outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari. He is leaving in obedience to the constitution’s term limits, thus promising a peaceful transfer of power. In addition, first lady Aisha Muhammadu Buhari admitted that her husband’s achievements in office were not perfect. She asked for forgiveness and for all citizens to work together “to achieve a better Nigeria.”

Another standard was set last week when the army squashed rumors it might disrupt the election. “The Armed Forces of Nigeria will never be part of any ignoble plot to truncate our hard-earned democracy,” said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Tukur Gusau.  In many parts of Africa, such words would be a welcome surprise.

The election process itself has improved with new vote counting systems that can make the results more transparent and avert fraud. Similar technology was used last year in Kenya, which may have helped break a pattern of post-election violence.

Less noticed in the run-up to the election was an emphasis on female voters. The electoral commission set up a department to address the ways women have traditionally been sidelined for religious, cultural, and economic reasons. Women bear the brunt of violence and social disruption, Ify Obinabo, commissioner of women affairs and social welfare, told The Nation newspaper. They “should see themselves as agents of change.”

Civil society groups have run campaigns to teach voters how to detect disinformation. Nigerians from abroad have returned to form election monitoring teams. Last month, religious leaders held an interfaith summit to reject sectarian violence. “Every candidate is a creation of God,” said African Church Bishop Peter Ogunmuyiwa. “Good leaders are in every part of this country and in every religion.”

The presidential campaign has been enlivened by the candidacy of Peter Obi for the Labour Party. Young people fed up with the traditional parties are showing up at his rallies in droves, creating “the most energetic, youth-led movement anywhere in Nigeria over the past three decades,” writes Ebenezer Obadare, a fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. “With a new generation now properly onboarded, no Nigerian election will ever be the same.” And perhaps democracy in Africa will follow suit, too.

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