Boston University

Nigerian President’s Recent Actions and Electoral Opposition Indicate Likely Decline of Democracy by Nick Cook

As Nigerians prepare to cast votes for the presidency, recent actions by sitting President Muhammadu Buhari and the history of his main electoral opposition, Atiku Abubakar, indicate that democracy is declining in the country and may continue to decline. Decline in the “partly free” country according to the Freedom House, does not bode well for the success of Nigeria, as one citizen already says “no one cares” who wins the election because of the corruption.

Buhari originally came to political power in 1983, following a military coup. Nancy Bermeo discusses that today “open-ended coups” are not common and that “election-day voter fraud” is less common than in the past. In his 2015 return to politics as the president, he did not gain political control through a coup, which Bermeo’s research supports and only time will tell if election-day voter fraud will occur. Bermeo discusses that “strategic harassment and manipulation” has replaced the election-day fraud. Buhari has recently suggested that vote-buying has occurred, speculating that manipulation is occurring and thus democratic backsliding.

Vote-buying is not the only reason for concern over the degree of democracy in Nigeria leading up to this weekend’s election. Buhari jailed politically-involved people without a trial in his first stint in power as part of his war on corruption, some for illegal money transfers. He did not equally prosecute the entire population for such crimes, though, as an appointee of his was not charged for stealing aid to terrorist victims until pressure was put on him. This process is described concisely in a quote from the New York Times that incorporates the words of Senator Shehu Sani: “’the presidency uses insecticides’ to fight corruption among those outside his circle, but only ‘deodorant’ on his allies.” Ozan Varol mentions that the use of non-political crimes to prosecute dissidents is a strategy of “stealth authoritarianism”, which involves cloaking repressive measures under the mask of law. This what is occurring here. Just last week, Buhari suspended Nigeria’s chief justice for violating an ethics code, who would have played a role in deciding the election if it is contested.  An additional way “stealth authoritarianism” plays out is through the use of judicial review to favor the executive. With the suspension of a justice two weeks out of an election, a likely temporary appointment of someone more favorable to the incumbent will be made, making this another authoritarian action by Buhari.  In prosecuting some opposing political figures and suspending a chief justice, Buhari is doing authoritarian actions.  

Further cause for concern stems from Mr. Abubakar, the main opposition candidate. His corruption allegations are so widespread that for many years he was unable to obtain a visa to the United States. He ran for the presidency in 2007 and was left off of the ballot due to a corruption investigation, before getting his name placed back on the ballot. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die discusses the importance of political elites as gatekeepers to keep potential authoritarian rulers off main party tickets. Although corruption does not necessarily mean Abubakar would be an authoritarian leader, with him as the main opposition to the authoritarian-leaning Buhari, elites have not produced a good candidate to challenge authoritarian leadership. Levitsky and Ziblatt also discuss that rising public discontent can allow demagogues to emerge that need to be stopped by elites. Certain citizens in Nigeria are definitely discontent with the corruption as demonstrated in the quote earlier that “no one cares” who wins, when usually “campaign season brings an air of excitement and optimism”. Buhari may be reelected due to discontent and worse authoritarians could jump into the political picture in the future as a result of the discontent. Elites have not allowed a good candidate to emerge that could defeat an authoritarian and lead to a cementing of democracy in the country.

Adam Przeworski and his coauthors define a democracy as having an elected chief executive, an elected legislature, more than 1 party and when the incumbent has lost election and ceded power. The first time the switch of power occurred peacefully in Nigeria was in 2015. Freedom House’s 2018 report addressed improvements in the quality of national elections in the past few years. These statements indicate that, the country appears to have been getting more democratic recently. This election though has antidemocratic actions leading up to it, including the suspension of a judge and a continued practice of prosecuting dissidents. A good candidate has not been placed on the table to challenge Buhari’s recent authoritarian tactics, a previous authoritarian who recently reentered politics claiming to be democratic. Stealth authoritarianism and bad candidates do not bode well for Nigeria maintaining the level of democracy that it had last year.  

Photo by: Pulse

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