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Nigeria: the real democratic test

Godwin Nnanna
19 April 2007

Is it going to hold? This is the question on the lips of many Nigerians on the eve of the presidential election scheduled on 21 April 2007. At this stage the answer is a cautious yes. Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) says it will not heed calls for postponement, and the threats of a boycott by opposition parties on the grounds of the election's unfairness are receding.

The announcement by the two leading opposition parties - the Action Congress (AC) and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) - that they will contest the election is important in returning an element of legitimacy to a process deeply scarred by political and legal manipulation. At the same time, these parties have been unable to reach agreement on a consensus candidate that could - even with the odds stacked heavily against him - have a chance of making a breakthrough.

The AC's candidate, vice-president Atiku Abubakar, secured a supreme-court ruling on 16 April authorising the electoral commission to allow his name to appear on the ballot-paper - although it is not yet certain that this will be implemented by the time the polling-stations open.

In any case, Abubakar's long campaign to secure his candidature - in face of hostility from the country's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who has been determined to prevent this - has made him only more determined to stand alone. Muhammadu Buhari, a former military head of state and the ANPP's flag-bearer proposed to stand as a consensus candidate against Umar Musa Yar'Adua, Obasanjo's choice as the candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP); but Abubakar rejected the proposal.

Godwin Nnanna is a journalist in the Ghana bureau of Business Day in Accra

Also by Godwin Nnanna in openDemocracy:

"Ghana: fifty years of independence"
(6 March 2007)

"Democracy in Nigeria: the road less traveled" (28 March 2007)

So can Nigeria make a success of the attempt at a peaceful, civil, legitimate transition this time around? Many Africans far beyond the country feel that they have a stake in the outcome, and would wish that the elections succeed. Chaos in Nigeria means chaos in the entire region of West Africa, and even beyond. Nigeria is the economic powerhouse of West Africa, and alone commands about half the population of the region.

It is estimated that about 64% of Nigeria's 140 million population are aged 25 and below. The unemployment rate has doubled in the last eight years. In most parts of Nigeria - even including Lagos, the commercial capital - electricity from the national grid is only available for three to five hours each week. Many artisans and small-business operators have been forced to abandon their trades when it becomes obvious they can't cope with the challenge of generating the power they need to function.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer, yet poverty is the condition of millions of its people. Some of its individual state governments have far more material resources at their disposal than many small African countries whose citizens on the whole live more secure and prosperous lives. For example, the federal allocation to Rivers and Delta, two states in the Niger delta region, exceeds the national income of the West African countries of Togo and Benin.

For many Nigerians who wish to participate in the presidential poll, material poverty and deprivation are the real driving-force of an earnest desire for "regime change". Yet it seems that the tumultuous prelude to the election has corroded their interest and spread political apathy. Moreover, the 14 April governorship elections augur ill for the fairness of the process and outcome on 21 April.

In most states, the governorship elections were little more than a charade. In parts of the southwest, street urchins - popularly referred to as "area boys" - hijacked the voting exercise. Nigerians routinely see the increasing numbers of these hoodlums as a symptom of the disillusion caused by the accumulation of failed promises by Nigerian politicians over the years.

Many would-be voters found that their names were missing from the voters' register in the wards they lived in. By contrast, the register at one polling station contained 500 names of people who were not listed as residents of that locality. Only about fifteen "actual" locals were on the list and thus able to vote; many others were asked to go to other polling stations and check if they were registered there.

The shortage of administrative help surrounding the whole exercise was also evident, especially in parts of Anambra, Enugu, and Imo in south-eastern Nigeria; there, intending voters waited in vain without any officials from Inec present or even ballot-papers having arrived.

This flawed, shoddy and tense experience augurs ill for a fair outcome on 21 April. A further worry is the incidence of violence across much of the country. The publication of the results of the governorship elections was followed by riots and attacks that took seventy lives. The most serious incident was the killing by state troops of at least twenty-five suspected Islamist militants on 18 April in the northern state of Kano; it is not clear how far this was directly related to the election rather than to a local dynamic of conflict, but it reflects the wider social unsettlement at what should be a time of democratic rather than violent mobilisation.

Among openDemocracy's 2007 articles on the politics and governance of Africa:

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy Birthday, Robert Mugabe"
(21 February 2007)

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension"
(28 February 2007)

Lara Pawson, "Angola: the politics of exhaustion"
(2 March 2007)

Peter Kimani, "Kenya's voices of discontent"
(27 March 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary"
(13 April 2007)

Gérard Prunier, "Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict"
(18 April 2007)

One day's legacy

These challenges notwithstanding, Nigerians cling to the hope that the 21 April election will pave the way for a civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in Nigeria, a jinx that has eluded the country in its forty-seven-year history.

If it were possible, success in Saturday's election would finally lay to rest the sad memories of a pivotal date in modern Nigerian history: 12 June 1993. On that day, a presidential election - adjudged by both local and international observers as the freest and fairest in Nigeria's time as an independent state - was annulled by the then military president, General Ibrahim Babangida.

12 June 1993 marked a significant watershed in the annals of Nigeria's history. Preparations for the elections were far cleaner and more efficient than in 2007. On that date, across the thirty-six states of the country, Nigerians came out in unprecedented numbers to vote. For once, most Nigerians shunned religious and ethnic bigotry and voted overwhelmingly and independently for the candidate of their choice.

Then, as now, the main contenders were Muslims, yet Nigerians from all religious divides voted in massive numbers. The contest pitched MKO Abiola, a Muslim from Yoruba-dominated south-western Nigeria (candidate of the then Social Democratic Party [SDP]) against the rival slate of Bashir Tofa, a Muslim from Kano in the north, who was the figurehead of the National Republican Convention (NRC).

It was an election through which many Nigerians voiced their disgust with military dictatorship and expressed their preference for democracy and the rule of law. Though the full results were never officially released, Abiola was generally believed to have won by a landslide. But when he attempted to claim his mandate, he was arrested and thrown into detention, where he died a couple of months later.

The crisis that ensued paved the way for the emergence of the country's most vicious and kleptomaniac dictator - General Sani Abacha. After Abacha's death on 8 June 1998, Abdulsalam Abubakar, an unassuming general, took the reigns of power with the promise to conduct elections within months.

In the event, to solve the 12 June imbroglio and placate the Yoruba people, Abdulsalam and a few other military and civilian politicians decided to give the presidency to a retired general, Olusegun Obasanjo. The thinking behind the choice was to have someone in charge who firmly believed in the unity of Nigeria and had the guts to espouse and defend it.

Thus, the PDP - under whose platform Obasanjo won the presidency in the 1999 election (and re-election in 2003) - was founded to promote the already-worked-out agenda of the then military oligarchy. Eight years after Nigeria's return to democracy, most Nigerians believe that not much has changed in the PDP's militocratic operational pattern - even if many too will argue that the opposition parties are no more democratic than the ruling party.

This is, perhaps, where the biggest worry lies. The right of Nigerians freely to choose their leaders has already been severely circumscribed. Thus, whoever the ruling party selects as a candidate - in this case, Umar Musa Yar'Adua - is projected as, in effect, the choice of the people. The results of the governorship elections reflect this pattern vividly: the voters may (or may not) be allowed their say, but the ruling parties in case have their way.

Will the presidential vote mark a continuation of the chaos that has marked the entire electoral process? Or will it mark a break with this dismal pattern, which will allow Nigerians at least to begin to reclaim their country? A majority of Nigerians want to see a peaceful transition of power, leading to the inauguration of a fairly-elected new president on the designated day, 29 May 2007. Can it yet happen? Watch this space.

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