Last year, I was working in Zambia, on a trip which involved long road journeys. (Tearfund trips often do. We tend to work in the kinds of places people don’t usually go to on holiday, so they’re not close to major transport links.)
Our local pastor guides were great; we had a lot of banter along the way. Our conversations veered from utter hilarity to a pseudo UK citizenship test, and sometimes both at the same time.
Having answered questions as wide-ranging as ‘So Katie, how is the Queen?’ to ‘Do you think the UK will ever join the euro?’, even my well-developed blagging skills were put to the test with this corker: ‘Why do you think Mrs Thatcher was so popular?’
Cue a lengthy discussion about the 1980s, itemising some of the many moments for which Mrs T is known and explaining why some people benefited and others didn’t. And then, suddenly remembering, I said: “But, to be fair, she did lead her party to win three general elections, so she did have some sort of mandate at least.”
To which our Zambian pastors nodded sympathetically and asked: “Did she rig them?”
NO SHE DID NOT!
A timely reminder, should we need one, of the privileged position in which we find ourselves.
Would that open democracy were the default position globally but, sadly, of course it’s not. It’s a luxury we often don’t fully appreciate.
As we’ve seen in Nigeria in the last few days.
One of the most developed economies in Africa, it’s still an extremely difficult electoral process for those of us in the UK to understand.
The logistics are challenging, and this year there has been the added complication of new machinery – they do thumb-reading now, to try to avoid duplication of votes or fraudulent presentation of IDs – which didn’t work in some stations so polling had to be extended for a further day.
And there’s a historic understanding that presidents will usually alternate between those from the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south. So, electoral results which deliver anything different to this present a security challenge.
Added to which, this time, there’s been the huge complication of Boko Haram. The militant Islamists made their mark on the world almost a year ago – although they were already widely known and feared within Nigeria – when they abducted girls from a school in Chibok.
Despite international outcry, and all and sundry holding up hashtag placards #bringbackourgirls, the schoolgirls have still not yet been returned home.
The election was delayed by six weeks because Boko Haram massacres had decimated villages and made many areas impassable. It would have been impossible to include those communities in the electoral process during that time.
So, the Nigerian military and forces from neighbouring countries spent the last six weeks reclaiming those villages and freeing hundreds of people – mostly women and children; men are usually killed outright – from captivity.
People like the women I met two weeks ago who had been taken to a huge house and held there, being told they were preparing to be brides for Boko Haram but who suspected they were really going to be used as suicide bombers.
Or the pregnant woman who was abducted and bundled into a car, driven miles out of town and then, having appealed to his sympathy, managed to persuade her driver to allow her to run from the car. It appears he himself had been abducted and forced to act as a driver, and wasn’t committed to a life with Boko Haram.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos, the elections have gone ahead.
More safely than usual, in fact, even though some people have been killed on the way to the polls. Usually, elections in this part of the world render a much higher death toll.
So far, they’ve been widely commended as the most credible the country has ever seen. And the call President Goodluck Jonathan made to concede to Buhari, quickly and graciously, was a pioneering move. Never before has a President of Nigeria left their post peacefully.
Widely hailed as a big moment not only for Nigeria, but for the whole of Africa, the dignity and maturity of the presidential candidates over the last few days is hopefully an indicator of a new season of democracy and freedom.
It’s too soon to tell for sure, and there will inevitably be repercussions in some parts of the country. Ingrained patterns of political behaviour will take time to break, but this remarkable act of leadership and grace in defeat will mean that Goodluck Jonathan is remembered positively.
Buhari must now turn his attention to the Boko Haram crisis. He has pledged to deal with it urgently. The pressure will be on for him to deliver; more than a million people are living in poverty and despair because of Boko Haram.
But hope remains, especially in the places of worship. Churches are among those offering their grounds and buildings for displaced people, and Christian organisations are reaching out to Muslims and Christians alike with practical help.
My colleague Danladi Musa, who oversees Tearfund’s work in Nigeria, sums it up: “We live in a beautiful proud country. This crisis is a terrible thing that has happened, and we are determined to serve our brothers and sisters who are struggling, and to build a country which is strong and free once more.”