Beset by the Boko Haram terror insurgency, Nigeria has postponed a presidential election for six weeks because the current government believes its security forces would be stretched too thin protecting polling places from attacks by the Islamists based in the northeast part of the country. Inevitably, the decision is being criticized by the opposition party, led by a Muslim who promises to get tougher on Boko Haram. He suspects that the crisis provides a pretext for the incumbent president to hold on to power. This is a natural reaction in any polarized democracy. In the U.S., many liberals feared that George W. Bush might use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to postpone or cancel elections, and when the shoe's on the other foot right-wingers feel the same suspicion about Democratic leaders. Yet the U.S. also sets a standard by which Americans often judge other nations, including Nigeria now. We held a presidential election at the height of the Civil War, in the fall of 1864, at a point in the conflict when Abraham Lincoln had reason to believe he might lose. The moral of the story is that crisis provides no excuse for obstructing democracy, while Lincoln emerges as usual as the exemplary democratic leader because he had every reason or excuse to delay the vote but didn't do so. Of course, the circumstances are different in Nigeria today as they were recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the Confederacy or its sympathizers were capable of projecting force deep into the north -- in the extreme case rebels snuck into Canada and struck south into St. Albans VT -- and some envisioned mass terror attacks like a plot to burn New York City, there was (as far as I can recall) no plan to disrupt the 1864 elections. The Confederacy was not out to overthrow the Union, disputing Lincoln's right to rule them but not his right to rule those states that chose to stay, whereas Boko Haram presumably denies legitimacy to any regime that doesn't practice or enforce sharia law. Elections and voters are thus a legitimate target for attack in their minds, while in Iraq and Afghanistan elections were seen as conferring false legitimacy on regimes imposed by invaders.
While it's a poor reflection on Nigeria that it can't (or won't) guarantee voters' safety at this time, it's fair to ask whether it would reflect any better on the incumbent president if he insisted on on-schedule elections with indifference to their safety. Liberal westerners rightly respect the regularity of elections but sometimes act as if elections themselves solve all problems. On one level Nigeria is worse off if the election is postponed, but it's harder to argue that Nigerians really are better off if the vote goes as scheduled. The problems that led to the rise of Boko Haram and the corruption and incompetence that give it further breathing room are unlikely to be solved by the presidential election, even if the incumbent, on whom corruption and incompetence is blamed, is replaced by an opponent who himself once took power by coup d'etat. Nigeria is a nation divided along religious and tribal lines, with a north-south antagonism that will look familiar to Americans within artificial boundaries drawn by Europeans. None of that can be waved away by the magic of an election, nor should we indulge in the magical thinking that assumes that voting empowers ordinary citizens in a way that really counts. If Nigeria is a nation, we can grant that it's up to the Nigerian people as a whole to say what their national interest is, but we also can question whether a largely bipolar election and a choice between questionable candidates is the best or only way to say it. I don't know if the U.S. even has a favorite in the election -- though we must note that Nigeria is an oil producer at a time when oil prices have geopolitical significance -- but our knee-jerk focus on elections as be-all-end-all events, and our almost reflexive criticism of the Nigerian government's decision may distract our leaders from the bigger picture in that country. I know too little about conditions there to judge the decision, but I'm pretty sure that the decision shouldn't be the sole basis of our judgment of the situation.