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Standing in line for hours in the brutal heat, Nigerians would not miss their opportunity to cast their votes during the country’s congressional elections this month. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District, recently visited Nigeria as an election observer to make sure the Nigerians got the chance to vote.
“It was exhilarating to watch what they’re going through,” Yaroslavsky said. “We were there to bear witness to the election and to hold them accountable to the world community.”
The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide, sponsored Yaroslavsky’s trip. The congressional elections in Nigeria were a precursor to the presidential election held on April 16. This was the fourth election Yaroslavsky has observed on behalf of the NDI, traveling to Romania in 1990, Mexico in 2000, and Ukraine in 2004.
Citing Nigeria’s “turbulent history,” Yaroslavsky noted there was a lot of instability during the congressional election.
“This would not be considered a smooth election by our standards,” Yaroslavsky said.
Mentioning the ethnic and religious strife, as well as tribal issues that plague Nigeria, the largest country in Africa with a population of 160 million people—Yaroslavsky said there is a certain conventional wisdom that developing nations can’t understand or handle democracy.
“Anyone who harbors such notions has not witnessed, as I did, the people of Nigeria, calmly standing in line for hours in the brutal heat to cast ballots in the exercise of self governance,” Yaroslavsky said. “I’ve always been in awe of people that will get out of their comfort zone for something bigger than themselves.”
The night before the April 9 congressional election, there was a bombing that killed at least 13 people at the office of Nigeria’s election commission in the central town of Suleja, hours before polls were due to open.
“I credit the people of Nigeria for their thirsting for a voice,” Yaroslavsky said. “From my point of view, to watch this was one of the most interesting things that I’ve done in my life. It was like watching a baby being born; the pride, the tension. People risked their lives to make this happen. I’m a realist and a pragmatist; every step forward is an important step forward. I would not predict how sustainable this is going to be. A lot of democracies have lost their democracy. Very few countries in the world have democracy that has lasted two centuries.”
Watching democracy unfold before his very eyes, Yaroslavsky said the experience took him back to his days at UCLA where he was “a fighter for freedom for Russian Jews.”
One luxury not afforded to the supervisor while in Nigeria was jogging, which he does every morning. In Nigeria, he was strongly advised not to jog and was under a strict curfew of 6:30 p.m.
“For the second time in my life I ran on a treadmill,” Yaroslavsky said. “I love running when I’m out of town because you see things you normally wouldn’t see. I love to run and I have to run. I’m happy to be home, but we take our comforts for granted. We have the best country in the world. The roads, as bad as they are in L.A., are much worse in Nigeria. And the poverty and living conditions are something we are not used to, even in the worst communities in our nation.”
Yaroslavsky’s time in Nigeria is one he will not soon forget. Admitting it was a “dream come true” to see and stand in the Niger River, Yaroslavsky is hopeful the Nigerians can manage a peaceful democracy.
“It’s way too early to tell whether we’ll be talking in ten years if democracy worked or if it was a bust,” Yaroslavsky said. “I think the 2015 elections will be better.”
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