Nigeria’s fledgling democracy has gone off the rails, and SA should play its part in pressuring Abuja to put things back on track. President Thabo Mbeki became the first foreign head of state to publicly congratulate Nigerian president-elect Umaru Yar’adua on his victory last month in elections that were brazenly rigged in favour of Nigeria’s ruling party. And last Wednesday, Mbeki became one of the first foreign leaders to welcome Yar’adua to his country since that deplorable election. Few expected the elections to live up to international standards. But in the wake of elections in 1999 and 2003 that were openly rigged in favour of President Olusegun Obasanjo and his party, it was hoped the April polls would at least mark a step forward. Instead, the elections marked a long stride backwards.

Rigging, violence and intimidation were so pervasive and on such naked display that they made a mockery of the electoral process. In many areas, including large swathes of the oil-rich Niger Delta, officials did not even open polling stations. They later announced voter turnout of more than 90% and landslide victories for Yar’adua in the same areas. Where voting did take place, many voters stayed away from the polls. They were frightened off by a pre-election period that saw more than 100 people killed in election-related clashes. By the time voting ended, the body count had surpassed 300.

Despite all the obstacles, voters turned out in many areas but often found themselves besieged on all sides. They encountered ruling party agents who watched them as they marked their ballots, gangs of thugs who took over their polling stations to stuff the ballot boxes in Yar’adua’s favour, and electoral officials who ignored their votes.

Credible election observers from Nigeria and abroad were unanimous in their condemnation. Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group called for a complete rerun of the presidential poll, and the European Union issued what may be its most scathing report on any election it has ever observed. But this outrage has not been reflected in the reactions of Nigeria’s foreign allies. Washington declared itself “troubled” at the conduct of the elections, and London said that it was “deeply concerned”. Neither has suggested that any real consequences might flow from their concern and neither has followed up with criticism robust enough to cause real embarrassment.

SA’s attitude towards the debacle matters. This is especially true because of the high standards of constitutionalism and good governance that SA has set at home. Because of that example, SA’s response to the Nigerian elections would not go unnoticed in Nigeria — or in Africa as a whole.

What’s more, SA has very good reasons to engage. The hijacking of Nigeria’s elections poses concerns for SA. Not only do the failed polls threaten to obliterate hopes of democratic reform in Africa’s most populous nation, but the example they set threatens to undermine progress elsewhere on the continent.

Nigeria’s nationwide polls were the third since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999 and each of those elections has been more violent and more openly rigged than the last. Last month’s polls now threaten to entrench the power of local and national leaders, who in the past eight years have gained control of public office in many parts of Nigeria and have plundered state resources with impunity.

Just as important, Nigeria’s example threatens to embolden corrupt and authoritarian governments across the continent. Rulers hesitant about yielding to pressure for democratic reforms could draw a dangerous lesson from Nigeria’s experience — that the hollow echo of a democratic process is enough to head off any criticism from across the continent. With progress so fragile in many African states, especially those emerging from periods of long and brutal conflict, this is not an idle worry.

If Pretoria wants to ensure that democracy and good governance spread further and deeper in Nigeria and across the continent, it cannot let the Nigerian government’s disgraceful conduct go unanswered.

Pretoria should use its good offices to press Abuja to respect the results of all legal challenges to the election results and to hold politicians responsible for electoral violence to account. Over the longer term, SA should work within the framework of the African Union and the Commonwealth to encourage Nigeria to carry out urgent reforms of the corrupt and abusive brand of politics that was put on open display in the elections.