Feb 7, 2010
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Nigeria at a tipping point

Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua has been incapacitated in a Saudi Arabian hospital since November. One of his aides has announced that he will officially hand over power to the country’s Vice President, Jonathan Goodluck. In a consolidated democracy, this would be no problem, but Nigeria’s democracy is fledgling, at best. The turnover may create as many problems as it will solve. Due to Nigeria’s deep ethnic and religious tensions, it has been customary to balance power between the north (mainly Muslim) and the south (mainly Christian). Handing over power to Goodluck means that the presidency will go from a northern politician to a southern one.

Today’s editorial in The Punch, Nigeria’s most popular newspaper, warns that failure to handle the situation correctly could unleash a wave of instability. Governors in the North, for example, have already announced they are against the move. It also makes the correct point that institutions don’t enforce themselves, people enforce them. Putting pressure on leaders to respect democratic institutions in times of political crisis can mean the difference between democratic consolidation and democratic collapse. Leaders in the US, the EU, the African Union, and Africa’s democracies, such as Ghana and South Africa, can play that vital role now. Nigeria is edging towards a tipping point. It will be vastly easier to put pressure on politicians now than to clean up the wreckage of a flawed turnover in power. Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best is far better than the opposite.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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