Democracy on the Rise: Ambassador Johnnie Carson on the 2015 Nigerian Presidential Elections

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Yale Journal of International Affairs: Thinking about the Nigerian election and what was happening over the last few months on the ground: on March 30, following the elections, which had first been delayed, incumbent Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to his opponent Muhammadu Buhari. Were you surprised by these results?

Ambassador Johnnie Carson: I was pleased by the results. And I think the results reflected the will of the Nigerian people. I think the elections went extraordinarily well. They were better than the elections in 2011, which I also had an opportunity to observe. And they were significantly and substantially better than the 2007 president elections. I was pleased by the large turnout. I was pleased by the organizational effort of Professor [Attahiru Muhammadu] Jega who runs the Independent National Electoral Commission. And I was pleased by the introduction of new and sophisticated technology by the Election Commission, which helped to authenticate the election results. I won’t address the issue of surprise, but I will say that I was extraordinarily pleased by the outcome.

YJIA: You were on the ground with an election monitoring team with the National Democratic Institute based out of Washington, DC. What did the elections look like on the ground?

Ambassador Carson: I was very pleased to be the co-leader of the NDI – National Democratic Institute – election monitoring effort in Nigeria along with former Democratic Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter. On the ground, on the day of the elections, we visited a number of polling places around the capital, Abuja. And [at] each of these places that we visited early in the morning, we saw very large, patient crowds who had arrived early to participate in the process. The elections themselves got off to a slow start. In some cases, the election balloting was as much as three hours late. And the reason for that was a labor dispute between the Independent National Election Commission and a union responsible, a transport union responsible, for moving ballot materials and poll workers to their locations. This was not the case everywhere. And in some places in Nigeria, elections started on time and very quickly. But once the ballot materials and the poll workers arrived, they organized themselves very, very quickly and began the process of identifying eligible voters and certifying their authenticity and preparing them to vote later in the afternoon. I think the security forces behaved themselves well. There were no military in sight of the polling places – that is, soldiers. There were police officers, generally anywhere from three to five at each of the polling places. But the police officers stood back a significant distance away from the presiding officers and where people were lined up to verify their registration and later to vote. They were there only to provide protection for the poll workers and to prevent any [unruly] behavior. But I saw none of the bad things that many people anticipated in the polling places. And in fact, about the contrary, the election went extraordinarily well, very peacefully. And only in the South South[1], in three or four states, did we see any serious disturbances. And those states were ones that were associated with President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife: Bayelsa State from where President Goodluck Jonathan comes, River State [from] where his wife Patience comes, as well as two neighboring states: Cross Rivers and Akwa Ibom.

YJIA: Originally [elections] were scheduled for February 14, but were delayed by President Jonathan for six weeks, who cited security concerns in the North – namely Boko Haram. Was this, in your opinion, a legitimate reason to delay elections, or was President Jonathan using the delay to consolidate more support?

Ambassador Carson: In retrospect, I believe personally that the election was delayed because there were individuals in President Goodluck Jonathan’s entourage and camp who believed that the president was falling behind in his bid for reelection. And sensing that he was falling behind in his reelection, they felt that a postponement probably would allow them time to recalibrate their election strategy and to be able to carry out a policy that would lead them to victory. I believe that the military surge was a part of the excuse rather than the actual reason [for the delay]. I am pleased that the military surge in fact achieved some results, some very positive results. I think the six weeks did in fact allow for a number of victories by the Nigerian military – victories that were won in conjugation with the support of Chadian and Nigerian troops that were also engaged in the North. And I think overall there were clear military successes that came out of this six-week delay. But in the end, many people ask why didn’t the government undertake the kind of military initiative undertaken in this last six weeks over the last five years. And so none of this, I think, helped President Jonathan as the outcome reflects. He lost rather significantly, as did his party.

YJIA: It seems as if there were effects that the delay had that maybe weren’t the intended effects. But you’ve mentioned a little bit in this venue and in other venues where you’ve written that corruption and Boko Haram were the major two issues at stake in this election. How would you advise President-elect Buhari to address these issues both in the short-term and in the long-term?

Ambassador Carson: That’s a good, good question. Let me say that there were three key issues, which probably affected the outcome of the election. They were three issues that probably swung the vote to President-elect Buhari against Goodluck Jonathan. One was corruption and the fact and feeling of many Nigerians across the country that corruption was spiraling out of control and had reached levels that were not seen since the military government of Sani Abacha[2]. Second, I think the security situation in the Northeast had not been handled well at all for nearly five years: from roughly the end of 2009, when the Boko Haram problem became much more serious. And so for five years the problem grew increasingly worse. The third reason that I think that people voted for change is the failure of President Jonathan to provide effective leadership, state management, and delivery of services that an increasingly large number of Nigerians felt they were missing and that they were entitled to. It was the lack of leadership, the lack of vision that was missing in this election that was missing in his presidency. [For] that, people voted for Buhari and against Goodluck Jonathan.

I think that the Nigerian population is showing increasing maturity and sophistication as an electorate. And it would be important for President-elect Buhari to try to do something that President Jonathan was unable to do and that is to deliver the vision, management, and services that people want. He has to find a way to bring the Boko Haram problem to an end. He has to find a way to ensure that there is no return to Niger Delta militancy. He has to rein in corruption without vengeance and vindictiveness, but rein it in going forward. And he has to be able to provide hope [and] opportunity to meet the aspirations of an increasingly larger and more sophisticated Nigerian electorate that wants, expects, more out of its leaders.

YJIA: It seems as if President-elect Buhari has a lot of critical issues that he is going to have to immediately begin addressing once he takes office. As you know, and I’m sure remember, this is President-elect Buhari’s second ascension to power in Nigeria. He previously took power through a coup in late 1983, I think December 1983. So this is his second time coming to power, this time through democratic elections, being elected in a free and fair Nigerian election. Should Nigerians and Africa-watchers in general be concerned that a former military dictator will now be the President of their democracy?

Ambassador Carson: No, they shouldn’t be concerned, because he is a former military officer and they shouldn’t be overly concerned that he, some thirty years ago, participated in a military coup that overturned the government. I think that President-elect Buhari, like many across Africa and across Nigeria today, believes more strongly and fervently in democracy than ever before. They believe that government should be run by civilians: under constitutions, and under laws, which reflect the nation’s constitutional documents. So they shouldn’t be concerned. I think that he has demonstrated his commitment to democracy. He has run two previous times as a candidate. He has not been happy with his losses, but he has accepted them in a peaceful and democratic fashion. He has not been associated with any extremist organizations or with any military efforts to secure government. And he, during this election, like President Goodluck Jonathan and the other candidates, affirmed several times in public that they would participate in a free and transparent process and that any grievances or issues that arose would be taken to the courts and not the streets. And so I think he is a committed, small “d” democrat. And his political views have changed as they have across Africa over the last thirty years. In the 1970s and 1980s, there were dozens and dozens of military coups d’état across Africa. And Nigeria, I think had no less than six or seven in a twenty-year period. I think that era has changed in Nigeria. This is the fifth, successive, multiparty, democratic election under the 1998-99 constitution. And I also note that one previous Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was elected in 1999 and 2003, was also a military president in an era as well. And it was also a part of a military government that was involved in a coup. And he has certainly turned out, during his eight years in office, to be strongly committed to democracy and remains strongly committed to democracy. I think we should think the same of President-elect Buhari.

YJIA: So its seems, that in the Nigerian case, the trajectory for democracy is on an increasing rise. What would you say that these elections specifically mean for Nigerian democracy going forward as well as African democracy in general?

Ambassador Carson: I think these elections were enormously important for Nigeria, for West Africa, and for the positive democratic trajectory. As I pointed out, this is the fifth presidential contest since the return to democratic rule in that country in 1999. It is the longest period of multiparty, democratic rule in Nigeria’s history since it became independent in 1960. This is a good sign. I think that the large participation in the political process demonstrates clearly that Nigerians are interested. I think the presence of civil society and its strong interest shows more strong sophistication and maturity. Most importantly, it demonstrates very clearly that votes count in Nigeria, and that voters have the capacity to assess the quality of their government and their leadership and to vote people into office as they have the President-elect Buhari, any of his APC supporters, and governors. But their votes also have the capacity to vote leaders out of office without civil unrest, a coup d’état, or political disturbances. So their votes matter, and I think this is reflection of what’s happening: tremendous support for democracy across Africa. One can’t forget that Nigeria is Africa’s most important country. It is Africa’s most populous country: 180 million people. It is the largest economy by far: certainly twice as large as Egypt’s economy and a third larger than South Africa’s economy. It’s Africa’s largest oil and gas producing state. But now also, it is the most populous, democratic state in Africa. This is a good sign for democracies across the continent. It’s a good sign for people across the continent to see that democracy can take root and be supported not only in small, respected democracies like Botswana and Mauritius and Cape Verde and Benin. But also in Africa’s most dominant, populous, and economically strong country. This is a good sign for Africa. And one that I think will give encouragement to many people across the continent living in countries that are on the threshold of major democratic transformation, and those that have democratic transformations that are still being consolidated.

YJIA: If President Buhari were to call you up and ask you: “Ambassador Carson, what do you think should be the first three things I do in office?” What three issues would you advise him to tackle?

Ambassador Carson: The first thing that I would tell him to do, after congratulating him, is to select a very good, competent team; a team that embodies integrity, honesty, professionalism, and a commitment to serve the public good. Select a good team that shares your vision, that shares your honesty, and that shares your commitment to public service. And select a diverse team; a team that represents a nation not only in terms of where they come from geographically, but a team that is diverse in its religious composition and its ethnicity, but also in its gender. Make sure it’s a team that includes women in it.

The second thing that I would say is establish a clear set of priorities that demonstrate that the government is committed to addressing some of the major concerns of people. One of the key things that has to be done is power generation. Solve the power problem. Make it a priority to substantially increase access, distribution, and low prices or reasonable prices for electrical power. It can be transformative. But establish a set of priorities that focuses on making a fundamental difference in the lives of people—not only as individuals but also in their capacity to produce and manufacture things. Set those priorities: electrical generation, improved housing, improved infrastructure, improved access to water and health care, and improved agricultural productivity. But set those priorities. But make those priorities really focused and push everyone to say Nigeria is going to focus on electrical power, it is no longer going to be a generator in diesel, import-dependent country.

And the third thing is to bring the Boko Haram situation to a conclusion. And recognize that it takes both soft power and hard power to do that. A new refined security strategy that does not alienate people while going after Boko Haram. And a social and economic strategy—a Marshall Plan—that provides open opportunity for people, jobs for young people: microcredit, microfinance, agricultural schemes, schemes to employ young men, schemes that put young men and young women back in the classroom safely, and development of agriculture.

YJIA: Thank you so much for talking about the recent elections with us, Ambassador Carson. We’re going to end this interview by asking you three brief questions that we ask all of our interviewees. The first is: what international issue keeps you up at night?

Ambassador Carson: Concern about the ongoing problems in South Sudan and in Sudan itself. The problems in Sudan are increasingly worrisome. And the inability of this new state to be able to manage itself effectively is really tragic. Together, once Africa’s largest country, both of these states are not in very good shape.

YJIA: Perhaps on a brighter note: what gives you hope for the future?

Ambassador Carson: The democracy and democratic elections in Nigeria. And the fact, quite honestly, that over the last year, we have seen a number of positive, democratic successes and changes. Elections aren’t the only thing that makes a democracy. But they are a manifestation of the ability of people to change their governments and participate in the process. But we’re seeing good election outcomes and changes of leadership in Nigeria, in Mozambique, in Zambia, in Malawi, in Namibia where the outgoing president won the fourth Mo Ibrahim Prize for good governance. We’ve seen positive outcome and change in Mauritius, Madagascar. These are all indications of a strong commitment across the continent to democracy and we need to continue to support the strengthening of democratic institutions and good governance. And all of these are indications of that. So I see these as positives.

YJIA: Our final question for you is: what book are you currently reading?

Ambassador Carson: A good question. I’ve actually got a couple books on my bookshelf. I am a fan of a good friend, Professor Robert (Bob) Rotberg who for a long time was at the Kennedy School. But he has a brand new book on governance in Africa that I am reading and I think it’s an extraordinarily good book.

About the Interviewee

Ambassador Johnnie Carson is the former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs (2009-2013). Prior to this he was the National Intelligence Officer for Africa at the National Intelligence Council, after serving as the Senior Vice President of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Carson's thirty-seven year foreign service career includes ambassadorships to Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. He also served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs. Earlier in his career he had assignments in Portugal, Botswana, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Carson also served as desk officer in the Africa section at State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Staff Officer for the Secretary of State, and Staff Director for the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

[1] The South South region of Nigeria is a geo-political zone which includes Akwa Ibom State, Bayelsa State, Cross River State, Delta State, Edo State, and Rivers State. The South South region houses the Niger Delta, the conflict-ridden, oil-producing region which spans Bayelsa State, Delta State, and Rivers State.

[2] Sani Abacha served as a military president of Nigeria from November 1993 to June 1998. His tenure is remembered by widespread human rights abuses and deep-seated corruption.


Interviewed by Sophia Berhie, Senior Editor for Articles.



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