Terence P. McCulley on democracy and election in Nigeria
Nigeria too has been tested by such adversity. Recently, Nigeria has endured term-limit challenges, the untimely death of a president, and the constitutional transfer of power to another. During its first 50 years, Nigeria survived a painful civil war and a pattern of military coups.
Last year, Nigeria celebrated its Golden Jubilee. It was a signal event, marking 50 years of Nigerian independence, and celebrating Nigeria’s emergence as a force on the world stage. This great nation has demonstrated its consequence throughout its history, supporting liberation movements on the continent, contributing to regional military actions in support of peace, security and humanitarian assistance, demonstrating economic capacity and entrepreneurial spirit, and engaging the world as a leader in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), and at the United Nations.
The Giant of West Africa has much of which to be proud. The time has now come for Nigeria to take the next step to achieve its potential by embracing democracy fully and cementing in place the institutions, practices, and values of democratic governance. Free, fair and credible elections are an important part of that process.
Promoting democracy and respect for human rights has long served as the underpinning of American foreign policy, and President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of these first principles in our engagement abroad. We do not seek primacy for a specific democratic construct – democracy is as diverse as the global community – but we are convinced that advancing democracy has demonstrable dividends. Democratically-governed nations deliver safer, more just, and more prosperous lives to their citizens. And strong democracies are more likely to secure peace, deter aggression, expand markets, promote development, combat terrorism and crime, uphold human rights and the rights of workers, avoid humanitarian crises, protect and improve the global environment, and protect human health.
America recognises that the pursuit of democracy is a difficult and organic process. Throughout our history the United States has struggled to ensure that all citizens can fully enjoy the rights guaranteed under our laws and our constitution. America’s 39th President, Jimmy Carter, once stated: "The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself -- always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity."
US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Terrence McCulley inspects a a military parade in Abuja
But enduring unexpected tests is not the same as addressing and correcting systemic or structural problems and the coming national elections present a golden opportunity for Nigeria to demonstrate its lasting commitment to democratic values and institutions.
Specifically, we urge political parties and the government to allow all registered voters to participate freely and fully in a peaceful and transparent process. This nation's political leadership -- and all those who aspire to lead -- must refrain from engaging in inflammatory rhetoric or supporting acts of intimidation. Violence has no place in a democratic society. We encourage efforts by the Nigerian government and civil society not only to permit, but to promote the inclusion of all political parties and their access to public fora and the media. Finally, whatever the outcome, we call on all political parties to respect the results of these elections.
Democracy is more than a formal counting of votes, and both Nigerians and the international community will judge the quality of this election by more than what happens on election day. Democracy is also about the freedom of all parties to campaign, meet with supporters, appeal to new voters, and deliver political messages to the electorate. Democracy is about sharing ideas and stimulating open public discussion on the future of one's country. Democracy is about upholding principles that are greater than any individual person and respecting the will of those who confer democratic legitimacy: the people of Nigeria.
The Nigerian government is not solely responsible for the success of your elections. Representative and accountable government can only occur when citizens empower themselves by participating fully and actively in the democratic process, ensuring that their votes count. Only Nigerians, by their vote and their commitment to democracy, can ensure that the 2011 elections are truly free, fair and transparent.
Nigeria’s most valuable and most dynamic resource is its people. Every day, whether meeting with entrepreneurs, government officials, civil society activists, farmers and shopkeepers, students and youth, I am impressed and inspired by the optimism, intelligence, drive, and ability of the Nigerian people. I am optimistic that the Nigerian people will decide what kind of government they want and then insist, even demand, that their leaders honestly represent their collective interests. Active citizen participation and open public involvement in all aspects of government is the most essential part of Nigeria’s promising future.
And speaking about the future, I would like to offer a special message for the youth of Nigeria. You represent the majority in this country, and you all have individual decisions to make about where you want to be in the next five to 10 years. But you have an equally important collective decision about where you want Nigeria to be in the next decade. Go out and vote. Choose wisely. Make your voices heard.
The challenge for Nigerians in the coming years will be to build solid institutions, based upon the legitimacy conferred by the country’s strong, diverse and decent people, and guided by democratic principles. You can count on American support for this enterprise, because Nigeria matters in the sub-region, on the continent, and on the world stage. As you build and consolidate your democratic institutions, and with many friends and partners throughout the world, Nigeria will increasingly be called upon to lead in Africa, and beyond. But it starts with you and your fellow citizens. And it starts now, in April, with these important elections.
•Ambassador McCulley is the United States’ Ambassador to Nigeria