02/05/2015 03:16 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2015

Nigerian Elections: At the Crossroads

Nigeria is a promised land; Africa is a great continent; we are marching on; to take our place; among all the nations of the world. This was our marching song at every morning assembly before classes began as elementary school students in the 1980s in Eastern Nigeria. This hymn captured the hope of the founding fathers and mothers of Nigeria about Nigeria's place in both African and world history. More than fifty-four years after independence from Great Britain and after three decades of experimenting with the American presidential system many Nigerians are still waiting for the dividends of democracy. In the words of the late Nigerian singer, Sony Okosun, many Nigerians are asking: "Which way Nigeria?"

As Nigeria prepares for national elections this February, memories of the June 12, 1992 annulled elections in Nigeria loom large. That election was considered the most free and fair elections ever conducted in the country since Independence. However, the violence and breakdown of law and order which followed the annulment of those elections took Nigeria to the brink of a second Civil War. This is why John Kerry's insistence in his recent visit to Nigeria on free and fair elections in Nigeria as basis for continued co-operation between the two nations is well-timed. Violence and anarchy have often characterized elections in Nigeria. Indeed, party politics and national elections in addition to religious fundamentalism have been the greatest sources of violence and war in Nigeria. They have also been fueled by the exploitation of the deep religious and ethnic differences in the country. This is worsened by the shocking economic and social disparity between politicians who have their hands in the till, their religious acolytes who sanctify the corrupt politicians with blessings and praise, and over 70% of Nigerians who live below the poverty line and over 53% of Nigerian youth who are unemployed.

When in 1979 Nigeria abandoned the Westminster Parliamentary system for American-type presidential and constitutional federalism, the hope of most Nigerians was that the country will become a United States of Nigeria. Nigerians hoped that their nation will be a model of good governance, civil liberties, rule of law, checks and balances and other practices and principles of democracy which define American political culture. Nigerians were optimistic then that like America which emerged from her Civil War a progressive and more united nation, that Nigeria through the American Presidential system can witness a national rebirth from the smoldering embers of the Civil War and bad governance which plagued her as a nation.

The sad reality is that a criminal elite--military and their civilian accomplices--has run Nigeria's economy aground by siphoning and mismanaging Nigeria's oil wealth. For instance Nigeria has lost more than 220 billion pounds of her national wealth to corruption and mismanagement in the first 40 years after independence through the political gatekeepers and their military, civilian and religious networks who control 90% of Nigeria's GDP. Nigeria has also lost more than 30 billion dollars from oil theft within the last ten years according to a report by Chatham House. In addition, Nigeria's political elites have preyed on the fragile ethnic and religious divides in the country to sustain a patron-client relationship which has defined the accession and retention of power in Nigeria. Most elections in Nigeria are simply charades and a mockery of democracy. The best candidates do not get any chance to get on the ballot or to win. This is because they cannot break the stranglehold of the prebendal aristocrats who have turned governance in Nigeria into a cesspool of corruption with a high attrition rate for those who refuse to dance to the tune of the political patrons. Elections in Nigeria simply highlight the disenfranchisement and powerlessness of most Nigerians in shaping their national destiny. In Nigeria, power does not belong to the people. Rather, power belongs to a few thin top layer of the Nigerian elites who are kept afloat on the sea of our national wealth, while the rest are drowning in the perilous waters of economic and social deprivation. Breaking this hold is something which lies beyond the capacity of Nigerians because there is no transcending national consciousness or patriotism which can be a template for building a counter narrative of inclusion and being in Nigeria in order to subvert the status quo. Nigeria needs the help of the international community. The US in particular should not support governments in Nigeria and the rest of Africa which emerge through flawed elections or military coups even if such governments are surrogates of the interest of the US in the continent.

Nigeria stands at the crossroads of history. These forthcoming elections in Nigeria could unravel all that is flawed about the Nigerian nation. The fault-lines of ethnic and religious polarities are emerging; there are random incidents of violence against candidates who campaign in areas outside their ethnic or religious stronghold. More worrying to many discerning Nigerians is the absence of any clear policy options between President Goodluck and his main challenger General Buhari on how they will confront the myriad problems which have held Nigeria down including the threat of Boko Haram and general insecurity in the country. Absent is also a plan from both parties on how to resuscitate the collapsing social and public services in Nigeria and how to provide jobs for millions of Nigerian graduates who are roaming the streets of life without hope. Neither the ruling party, PDP nor the opposition party, APC has enough ethical and ideological bandwidth to transmit a new narrative of national identity, or a platform to address the economic woes of Nigeria and her failed power and agricultural sectors. This election has not afforded Nigerians the opportunity to have a national conversation about the way forward. This is because the campaigns have been filled with 'sound and fury' of character assassination, stoking of ethnic and religious sentiments, finger-pointing, etc all of which signify nothing for the future of Nigeria. This is why I cry for my country of birth and the millions of poor Nigerians who have never known the good life despite the huge oil wealth of Nigeria and who do not see any hope beyond the dance, drama, empty promises and grandstanding of the Nigerian elites who are criss-crossing the country for votes.