The US, Nigeria, and the Dynamics of a Changing World

Yesterday, President Barack Obama released a statement on Nigeria’s recently completed elections:

This morning, I called President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria to congratulate him on his election victory and to commend the people of Nigeria for their resolve and patience during last month’s historic presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections.  The success of the elections was a testament to Nigerian voters who waited in long lines, stayed to watch their votes counted and were determined that these elections mark a new chapter in Nigerian history.  Credit also belongs to the Independent National Electoral Commission, the National Youth Service Corps, and Nigeria’s vibrant civil society, all of which must play a role in ensuring that the final results reflect the will of the Nigerian people and that Nigerian authorities investigate and address any allegations of fraud or irregularities.

While the majority of Nigerians cast their ballots free from intimidation and coercion, the post-election violence that followed the presidential election on April 16 was deplorable.  Violence has no place in a democratic society, and it is the responsibility of all Nigerians to reject it.  Democracy, however, neither begins nor ends with elections.  Now is the time for Nigeria’s leaders and its people to come together and build the future that they deserve—a multi-party democracy that addresses the aspirations of all Nigerians, especially its youth, who did so much to make the recent elections a success and who will define the nation’s future.

As Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria can show what is possible when people of different parties, ethnicities and faith backgrounds come together to seek peace, provide for their families, and give their children a better future.  Today, Nigerians have an historic opportunity to move forward together and make their nation into a model for Africa.  As I told President Jonathan, I look forward to strengthening our partnership with Nigeria so that this and future generations of Nigerians can live in peace, democracy and prosperity.

AFP gives some additional context.

I agree with President Obama that post-election violence – wherever it occurs – is deplorable. Still, I could not help but think, reading this statement, about the assumptions and power relations built into the tone the White House (whoever its occupant) so often uses with regard to other countries. It is commonplace to read that the US government has praise for but also concerns about an African country’s elections. At the same time, it would be surprising to hear this kind of tone from an African nation regarding American elections.

Can we imagine Goodluck Jonathan calling Barack Obama and saying, “I commend you on the successful completion of the 2010 mid-term elections, but I deplore the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and urge the United States to take strong steps to address political violence, particularly so as not to shatter the dreams of its youth”?

I am not trying to draw a false equivalence between very different kinds – and scales – of violence in these two countries. Many readers, I imagine, will say this is precisely the point: the US effectively manages its democracy and its political violence, the argument runs, so it has the right and the moral authority to speak bluntly to countries with more serious problems. That may be true on some level, but claims to moral authority should not mask the fact that other dynamics and power relations are at work too. The US government is able to speak to other governments in this manner because of US power, and not just because of moral authority.

But power relations change over time. In the next century, Nigeria’s population could come to exceed that of the US (see here for a take on this issue in French, though I am not very familiar with this publication). Population does not equal power in a one-to-one correspondence, of course, but the point is that Nigeria has demographic and political weight that will increase over time. If all the talk of an emerging “multi-polar world” proves correct, Nigeria may be one of those poles. And Nigerians, even if they agree with the substance of outsiders’ comments, may come to question the tone of those comments (as some no doubt already do) – just as Americans often acknowledge that we have problems, but have been historically less than receptive to outsiders’ criticisms of those problems. The way Obama talks to Jonathan now may be quite different from the way US presidents are talking to Nigerian presidents in 2050.

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