FULL DISCLOSURE: As someone who has been active in both advising on and overseeing elections in Africa and Nigeria, I have worked for several pro-democracy candidates in Nigeria, including President Goodluck Jonathan.
With revolution unfolding in Egypt, civil war erupting in Libya, and citizens fleeing Cote D'Ivoire, it would not seem that the region is ripe for a successful democratic transition. But then there is Nigeria...
Despite a history of corruption and electoral fraud, Nigeria is on the cusp of solidifying its young democracy and becoming a beacon of hope for the region. President Goodluck Jonathan and INEC, Nigeria's electoral body, have been widely applauded for the investment and planning that will ensure a free and fair election for Nigerian president on April 9.
This is especially impressive, because it comes on the heels of one of Nigeria's most disastrous and fraud-ridden elections in 2007. Then, less than one year ago, a young and unlikely President, Goodluck Jonathan, assumed power following the illness of the late President Umaru Yar'Adua.
It has been a remarkable year for the President. Largely unknown, he became interim President shortly after Yar'Adua left the country. Jonathan calmed fears of unrest and then quickly embarked on a series of reforms, including sacking Yar'Adua's entire cabinet.
The one promise Goodluck Jonathan made to his people after taking office, however, was not one of peace or prosperity - "these issues will take longer than a year to resolve," he said. Instead, he pledged to ensure free and fair elections of a kind that have been the exception, and not the rule, in recent Nigerian history. The Nigerian people are taking him at his word and holding him to his pledge. So far, the signs are promising.
Jonathan has reaffirmed his belief that the government cannot be effective if there is no constitutional and robust process for selecting the leaders who will govern the country. When the first by-election was scheduled in Edo Central (a crucially important election district), Jonathan called it one of the first tests of free and fair elections in Nigeria. He told INEC and other security agencies that he wanted "one man, one vote; one woman, one vote; one youth, one vote."
Ironically, Jonathan became a victim of his own electoral pledge. In Edo Central, the ACN (Action Congress of Nigeria) outpolled Jonathan's PDP (People's Democratic Party). Jonathan gamely accepted the result, setting a standard unusual for Nigerian electoral politics. After the elections, Edo State governor Adams Oshiomhole One of Jonathan's first moves toward ensuring free and fair elections was to appoint Professor Attahiru Jega as the new Chairman of INEC. Although Jega is known for his activism and integrity, his selection was met with some skepticism by opposing parties, simply because Jonathan had appointed him. But the council selection meeting was the first in twelve years to have all former Nigerian leaders in attendance - an almost breathtaking precedent in a nation riveted by electoral ambitions. Attendees included Muhammadu Buhari, one of the President's opponents in the elections this April.
One of Jonathan's first moves toward ensuring free and fair elections was to appoint Professor Attahiru Jega as the new Chairman of INEC. Although Jega is known for his activism and integrity, his selection was met with some skepticism by opposing parties, simply because Jonathan had appointed him. But the council selection meeting was the first in twelve years to have all former Nigerian leaders in attendance - an almost breathtaking precedent in a nation riveted by electoral ambitions. Attendees included Muhammadu Buhari, one of the President's opponents in the elections this April.
This type of reform has defined Jonathan's short term in office. He shed much of the patronage politics that has plagued Nigeria's young democracy. Instead of listening to the traditional Nigerian political "godfathers," the President started a Facebook page - and asked ordinary Nigerians for their ideas and concerns.
The idea took off. More than 500,000 citizens now follow his page and interact. Among world leaders, only President Obama has more Facebook followers.
What's amazing is that this is not just a gimmick. The President actually listens to citizen input and adjusts public policy based on what he hears. Public input led to decisions to open a consulate in San Francisco to spur technology investment, rescind the suspension of the Nigerian soccer team from international play, and modify policies to improve the power grid.
Without the direction of aides or consultants and in a country just breaking through on the Internet and social media, the young President "got it." From his first Facebook post, shortly after taking over power:
...there is an unchallengeable power of good in the Nigerian nation and her youth and through this medium I want Nigerians to give me the privilege of relating with them without the trappings of office. GEJ
It's clear there is a new generation of leadership - a fresh approach after the years of Obasanjo and Yar'Adua, a series of disputed elections, and widespread corruption. Goodluck Jonathan has high hopes for his country, and they seem to extend beyond his term or his personal power. He has pledged to run for only one term (to help alleviate the concerns of northern Muslims who feel this is their time for power based on a zoning arrangement). He has developed a comprehensive economic agenda and is proposing a massive increase in education spending.
The news is not all good for Nigeria - poverty remains rampant, corruption still exists, and violence continues, particularly in the Plateau state (though less so in the Delta, partly due to Jonathan's work on Yar'Adua's amnesty program). But Jonathan is making progress, and he has one thing very right: he is listening to his people. From his aggressive steps to ensuring free and fair elections to having conversations with Nigerians on Facebook, he understands that he holds his office to serve the will of the people.
In a belt of African unrest, that is a welcome sight.