Nigerians were determined to get it right this time, and from all appearances, they did it last Saturday, April 16, when they elected Goodluck Jonathan as the next president of Nigeria. Although there were reports of instances of violence, the election was exactly what everyone had hoped for: free, fair, and credible.
Nigeria has not developed a reputation for free and fair elections in recent years, but may have turned the corner this month, having held National Assembly elections the week before the Presidential vote. I was detailed to assist the Public Affairs Section in Abuja during the elections period, and took the opportunity on April 16 to participate on an embassy observer team that went out to visit polls in Kogi State in the center of Nigeria.
Traveling with two embassy staff members, our team set out at 6:00 a.m. to travel two hours south in hopes of catching a polling station in the process of opening up and accrediting the voters. The embassy SUV was one of the few vehicles on the road heading out, and we encountered the last of the trucks and buses trying to get to Abuja before the roads were locked down for the day to all but official traffic. Hundreds of domestic and international observers were scattered across the 36 states of Nigeria for the exercise in hopes of seeing a credible vote take place in the 119,733 polling units. The previous presidential vote in 2007 had been marked by fraud and vote theft, and had left Nigerians disillusioned in the democratic process. The popular refrain had become, "we must get it right this time," an optimistic feeling that was in the air as we ventured to different polling stations in the Lokoja vicinity.
At the first poll, located at Koton-Karfi, we saw a cluster of people surrounding the table set up for the accreditation of the registered voters, a slow process of matching an individual's voter card with the picture and information on the voter lists. It was obvious that the election officials took the process seriously. It was just as obvious that the voters themselves were completely engaged in the process. When I greeted one of the village elders patiently sitting in the shade, he broke into a big grin and held up his voter card, saying without words, "I am here to vote!" I had to wonder if he had such a feeling in previous elections, or if he had even felt the need to participate in the earlier flawed processes.
This was the feeling we found at every polling station that we visited. Whether it was a group of youths at Adankolo polls, proclaiming, "We want to chose our leader," or a man lined up to vote at that poll stating that this was the best election since independence while pointing at his graying hair to signify his many years of experience at the process, saying, "And I didn't buy this," the air of optimism permeated at every corner.
Perhaps the most impressive poll was located in Ganaja, where 3,252 voters had registered and an estimated 2,500 had turned out to vote. Standing in two long lines stretching at least two football fields in length, people patiently waited their turn in the plus 100-degree heat, many holding multi-colored umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun. The election officials worked in unison, each performing a duty checking the records, issuing the ballots, or directing the voters to the voting booth placed in-between the lines thus assuring the visibility and the transparency of the process.
Ultimately, it was the judgment on the fairness of the election process by the Nigerian people that is most important. The various international observer organizations have pronounced the elections as credible, but it was the words of a driver yesterday that appeared to echo the sentiment of most Nigerians, "We did it this time!"Related Content:Statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Election in Nigeria