NIGERIANS of various political stripes yesterday condemned the suspension of the country's elections as attention focused on the challenge to the electoral process.
Officials of the losing party shelved their allegations of vote fraud, supporting the apparently victorious Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). "This issue cuts across party lines," a senior official of the losing National Republican Convention (NRC) said. "It's a question of democracy."
Both parties were created by the military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida as part of his long and halting attempt to replace military rule with a democratic government. But three times in three years General Babangida's administration has aborted handing over the government to civilian rule, either because the country was not ready, or because politicians were accused of vote-rigging.
The latest attempt at a democratic transition seems to be fading over a legal technicality. The country's National Electoral Commission (NEC) suspended the outcome of the polls Wednesday, bowing to a court injunction restraining it from announcing what everyone here believes to be true: that Mr. Abiola's SDP won a generally fair election.
Despite a decree passed by Babangida in April giving the NEC complete control over the elections regardless of court actions, on June 10 the high court issued an injunction ordering the NEC chairman Humphrey Nwosu not to hold the elections. On June 16, the court ordered Mr. Nwosu not to publish the final results of the polls.
"The NEC is being manipulated by the authorities," said SDP spokesman Amos Idakula. "The same government which drafted that decree is restraining it from fulfilling its duty. The decree should serve the purpose for which it was made - to hold the elections."
An NRC supporter said after the suspension, "They are not my party, but the SDP won fairly. Abiola should be given his chance. People are tired of the military, and they want this man for better or worse."
Perhaps colored by past experience, the public reaction to the suspension was placid.
"Two years ago, if you had told me this would happen in Nigeria, I would have said no - only in Uganda or Ghana can they get away with things like that," a Lagos businessman said yesterday. "But now we have had so many delays and changes of candidates that people have become docile."
"Since the last postponement of the elections, there has been a lot of apathy among the public," observes a community leader in the mainly Muslim north.
"The parties have no grass-roots support," the leader adds. "They are imposed by the government, and neither of the two candidates inspires much confidence. People here don't care much whether it's [NRC presidential candidate Bashir] Tofa or Abiola, they just want to see a change."
The SDP had won a clear, though unconfirmed, victory in Saturday's polls over the NRC in an election that was well-run and fair in most parts of Africa's most populous nation. Foreign observers in most states of the country witnessed no serious problems and both parties were able to monitor the whole process at 106,000 polling booths and at collation sites in the capital of Abuja. It was not until Wednesday, when the NEC was ready to publish all but three of 30 states' results that the NRC cried foul.
The expected president elect, Abiola, has remained in his house in Lagos throughout the stop-and-go five days and has appealed to Nigerians to stay calm. "Of course he is a bit low," said one of his close aides, "but he is not taking it lying down."
The NEC is seeking an accelerated appeal in Kaduna, a large town in the north, to overrule the earlier injunction, and allow it to complete the elections.