JOS, Nigeria–Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail had an interesting report the other day on the severe security measures put in place across Nigeria last Saturday for the parliamentary polls. York wrote that “nearly 250,000 gun-wielding soldier” were deployed to “shut down every street in [Nigeria's] chaotically gridlocked cities,” with military checkpoints preventing any movement in vehicles on elections day.
The combined effect of the security procedures imposed by the military and assorted security branches was an atmosphere that resembled a state of emergency. Land borders were closed. Attack helicopters patrolled over some cities. Silence filled the space left when the streets were emptied of honking cars and motorcycles.
This was indeed the case in Jos, the central Nigerian city where I reported from last Saturday. As I moved about town to visit polling stations in an aged blue station wagon with a handmade paper sign reading “PRESS” with a Nigerian journalist and two other international reporters, we were stopped repeatedly by professional and polite Nigerian soldiers manning checkpoints made of tires and wood.
The conduct of the (rumored to be very well-paid) Nigerian officers was impressive. At the same time, the sheer fact that such a state of lockdown was necessary to accomplish a more credible vote than Nigeria has experienced in recent history is worth noting. As York wrote, the harsh tactics were intended to prevent political “thuggery”–a buzzword in the Nigerian press–such as voting at multiple polling stations, which has been a problem in the three elections the country has held since it abandoned military rule in 1999.
Even after the “movement restriction” was lifted at 4pm–when polls were set to close, which did not happen at many stations given the late start of voting–the city of Jos remained quite, as if still in slumber. Few “food is ready” local restaurants were open around dinnertime, and the Lebanese restaurant I ate at practically pushed me and my fellow diners out the door by 8:30 pm so that they could close early and get home safe.
It is no doubt a significant accomplishment for Nigeria that the first round of elections this month have passed relatively peacefully (save a handful of deadly incidents in different areas of the country) and without the myriad reports of fraud and voter disenfranchisement as in the 2007 polls. Observer groups including the National Democratic Institute also issued generally positive statements about the credibility of the vote.
But if the 2011 parliamentary, presidential, and state governorship polls do succeed in marking a break from the past in Nigeria’s ongoing–some say imperiled–democratic transition, then the 2015 ought not have to require such stringent “lockdown” measures. Of course, I am speaking too soon in racing ahead to consider the 2015 vote, as the most contentious polls are still ahead: the presidential vote this Saturday, and the state governorship vote on April 26. See Alex Thurston’s analysis of what the still-trickling-in parliamentary vote results might mean for the two looming votes.
A solider stands on the roadside near a military checkpoint in Jos (unfortunately none of the soldiers I encountered were interested in having their photos “snapped,” so I took this one stealthily from the car–hence the poor photo!)