Spotting sprouts of democracy

The world’s shift toward fewer liberties and rights may be bottoming out, according to Freedom House. Nigeria’s recent election shows the potential for progress.

A woman votes in Lagos, Nigeria, Feb. 25.

Plenty of Nigerians hoped that their recent presidential election would set a new high bar for democracy – not just for their country, but for all of Africa. Yet when it came time to vote, polling stations were disrupted by violence and ballot shortages, turnout was low, and the electronic system designed to prevent counting fraud faltered. The ruling party candidate, Bola Tinubu, whose campaign slogan was “It’s my turn,” won with just 8.8 million votes in a country of 220 million people. 

A familiar tale in many democracies, perhaps, but a misleading one. For the first time in nearly 20 years, there is evidence that “the world’s long freedom recession may be bottoming out,” according to Freedom House in its latest global survey. Political rights and civil liberties gained ground in 34 countries and lost in 35 – the narrowest gap since 2005. After tracking such data for a half-century, Freedom House finds “heartening proof that democratic progress is always possible.”

“So long as human beings remain true to their natural yearning for liberty, authoritarians will never be secure, and the global movement for democracy will never be defeated,” the report stated.

A few factors help explain the shift on rights and liberties. As countries have emerged from the pandemic, basic freedoms have been restored. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has stirred democracies to a more vigorous defense of shared values. In every region, the report found, authoritarian regimes are facing growing popular backlashes against corruption, state violence, and controls on dissent.

The usual benchmarks for democratic progress are clean and fair elections with accepted results. The few examples in Africa underscore the continent’s potential for further democratic gains “if the virtuous circle of free elections and policy improvements is allowed to take hold.”

That is why Nigeria’s Feb. 25 election matters. The public’s frustration – women, for example, felt particularly excluded from seeking office – has not dampened a desire for change among its people, despite the low turnout. Nearly 40% of Nigerians registered to vote were under 35. Like most African youths, they are slowly disrupting an entrenched political order. Linked by social media, many reject political apathy.

“There is still something to be said about the palpable hope among Nigerians, especially the youth who took a leap of faith in the country, came out to vote, and in some cases, returned to polling units that had been attacked by thugs,” wrote Busayo Akinmoju, a Nigerian university student, in the The Republic magazine.

That persistence, he adds, signals “a renewed belief in the value of political participation. The youth got it right this time by showing up to make their voices heard, and in doing this, they moved the needle of change an inch in the right direction.”

In a country with few public services, “Nigerians’ self-organizing impulse is what has been preventing Nigeria from becoming a failed state,” according to a new Brookings report on Africa. “They go about their daily business ... trying to earn a living, get an education, create a career path, find a spouse, raise children, and just generally, make meaning of life.” The report recommends creating fewer big government programs and simply letting “non-state actors” continue to flourish.

Despite the ups and downs of democracy around the world, Freedom House finds, the number of pro-democracy protests against autocratic rule shows “the people’s desire for freedom is enduring.” Nigeria is a prime example.

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