Nigeria's election returns Shagari to power, bolsters fragile democracy

The writer traveled to Nigeria to cover the election. The effect of Nigeria's closely watched presidential election, which returned incumbent Shehu Shagari to power for a second term, goes beyond its borders.

The Aug. 6 election was a crucial test for Nigeria's young and fragile democratic system. The peaceful vote in Africa's most populous state (now estimated with up to 130 million residents) is also seen as a triumph for democracy in Africa, which is dominated by single-party and military regimes.

President Shagari was elected to a second four-year term by a substantially larger majority than in the last election. The final results, announced early Thursday after four days of vote-counting, gave him 47 percent of the vote and a majority of more than 4 million over his main rival, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

In the last elections, run by the military in 1979, voting was so close that Supreme Court arbitration was needed before President Shagari's victory was confirmed.

Early results had put Chief Awolowo in the lead, but these were from western Yoruba-speaking states where his support is strongest. Votes in the more numerically important but poorer northern states took longer to count and transmit to the capital, Lagos, in the south.

The north voted massively in favor of Shagari, a northern Muslim. The final result to be announced was from his northwest home state of Sokoto, where he won 91 percent of the vote.

President Shagari's victory reflected an ability to attract national support in a country divided by tribal and religious differences.

The country's Constitution requires that the President obtain 25 percent of the vote in at least 13 of the country's 19 states, as well as an overall majority. Shagari did so, and met his quota in 16 states.

The bespectacled President, who has the characteristic tall, lean features of the Fulani tribe, cuts an impressive figure in his long, white flowing robes. During his previous term in office, he developed a rare reputation for impartiality, moderation, and honesty.

Despite a much higher turnout - some 50 percent of the registered 65 million voters this year, compared to 35 percent in 1979 - electoral violence and rigging have turned out to be much less than originally feared.

There seems to have been a unanimous reluctance by the six presidential candidates to repeat the thuggery and violence that marked elections in the early 1960s.

However, two of the candidates have initiated court cases, charging there was vote-rigging. Observers point out that such complaints are automatic in African elections. Even if the plaintiffs win, the overall result would remain the same, they say.

Officials in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) hope that the President's resounding success will carry the party through to victory in the other elections this month - races for state governorships and state assemblies as well as the national Senate and House of Representatives.

But the NPN's image is much less attractive than that of its President. The party itself is widely regarded as a corrupt and feudal elite. In the 1979 elections, it gained control of only seven of the 19 states.

This year all the main parties won at least one state.

State elections may be even more keenly contested than the presidential vote because under the country's federal system state legislators have a more direct impact on voters' daily lives.

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