Columnists Lekan Oguntoyinbo Opinion

Anxiety looms as world follows Nigeria elections

Nigeria, Africa’s so-called giant and the world’s largest black nation, is in the news again. As usual, much of the world is watching with considerable trepidation.

Next month, voters in the nation of 170 million people will go to the polls. They’ll have to decide between two hard candidates who are the current frontrunners.

And, as in U.S. politics, it may come down to the lesser of two evils.

The incumbent, a weak leader and poor manager with the curious name of Goodluck Jonathan, is running for his second and, presumably, final term. Jonathan, who has a well-earned reputation as a do-nothing president, came to office in 2010 when his ailing predecessor died in office. Despite pledging to only serve out his predecessor’s term, he ran in 2011. Now, despite a pledge to serve only one full-term, he is running again.

His opponent, a septuagenarian named Mohammed Buhari, is a former army general who wants his old job back. In the early 1980s, he helped overthrow a democratically elected government and ruled Nigeria as military dictator for nearly two years.

Some credit Buhari for running a government that imposed discipline on a notoriously wayward society. But many critics also remember a regime that muzzled the press, held people in prison without trial for long stretches and showed contempt for human rights.

Buhari says he’s now a reformed man, a committed democrat dedicated not only to the rule of law, but to due process, liberty and justice. Buhari won’t be the first former Nigerian military dictator, to once again, try to assume the reins of power. In 1999, another ex-general was elected president. As his second term drew to a close, he tried to ram through a constitutional amendment that would give him a third term. Thankfully, he failed.

And it’s not the first time the retired dictator has tried to get his old job back.  In 2011, he ran against Jonathan and lost in race that observers failed to pronounce free and fair.  His supporters rioted for weeks. Thousands of people died.

But now the stakes are much higher. Many analysts believe Buhari is a much stronger – and smarter – candidate this time around. And more Nigerians have come to recognize that Jonathan may not be up to the job.

In the five years since Jonathan has been in office, attacks in Nigeria’s northeast region by the terrorist group Boko Haram have intensified. Nigeria’s ill-equipped and poorly trained military has tried to fight back, but they’re no match for the Islamic terrorists. Human rights group estimate that about 10,000 people have been killed in the last five years but the number is likely much higher.

A few weeks ago – around the same time that the world was mourning the deaths of 17 French citizens – Boko Haram soldiers marched through a section of one state, sacking numerous towns and villages and burning them to the ground.

Estimates are that at least 2,000 people were killed.

The massacre, meanwhile, commanded only a fraction of the attention given the killings in Paris. World leaders did not converge on the Nigerian capital Abuja for a solidarity march. Weeks went by and Nigeria’s president did not utter a word –and neither did Buhari.

In the meantime, the conflict with Boko Haram has drawn in several neighboring countries, including Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

Why does all this matter to America, its allies and to U.S. citizens, black and otherwise? Because political and economic stability in Nigeria – the rock of the West African subcontinent – is key to stability throughout the region and to U.S. interests worldwide.

With one of the world’s three fastest-growing economies, Nigeria is the region’s wealthiest and most powerful country. It also is one of the biggest oil suppliers to the United States, making it of vital strategic and economic importance to the U.S. and many other leading industrial nations.

From that perch, Nigeria has played a critical role in peacekeeping efforts in the region and around the world for decades. With next month’s election, there is some concern that post-election unrest could destabilize Nigeria, igniting a domino effect among many nearby nations – and ultimately throughout the rest of the world.

Even in a country with a long history of flawed elections, every election is important. This election is particularly important – and not just to Nigeria.

Wave columnist Lekan Oguntoyinbo, a national award-winning writer, is an independent journalist. Contact him at oguntoyinbo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo.