Nigeria tries to break from military past
Nigerians choose a president on Saturday amid accusations of intimidation and ballot fraud.
LAGOS, NIGERIA — At a polling station in the boisterous Oshodi district of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, voters were dismayed to find election materials in short supply for last weekend's Senate vote. The center had only 100 ballot sheets for an electorate of almost 600 people.
"Does that mean that a lot of people will not be able to cast their vote and will be deprived of their rights?" asks Larry Badmus, an office worker. "We would appreciate it if this complaint could be channeled to the authorities concerned."
Mr. Badmus's complaint is one of many irregularities lodged since Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, began a landmark cycle of national elections that culminates in presidential and gubernatorial polls on Saturday. The main opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) and other smaller opposition groups have claimed they are the victims of ballot rigging by President Olusegun Obasanjo's ruling People's Democratic Party.
Analysts say the conduct of this weekend's poll and the reaction that follows will be a crucial indicator of whether the country can proclaim its first successful handover between civilian governments since independence in 1960.
"We are looking at the process," says one Western diplomat. "If Nigeria can sustain its first civilian transition since independence, that is the important thing."
The elections are a critical stage of Nigeria's attempt to break a culture of military rule that has prevailed for most of its postcolonial history. That history resonates through the presidential poll: Mr. Obasanjo, a former military dictator whose election in 1999 ended more than 15 years of Army rule, has as his main challenger Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, another former military leader. The country's last attempt to hand over power between civilian administrations ended in a 1983 coup by General Buhari, amid public anger over government corruption and ballot fraud during an election held earlier that year.
Official results from last weekend's parliamentary polls suggest Obasanjo's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has secured just more than 50 percent of the vote and emerged as the largest party.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, the electoral regulator, said Wednesday that with 82 of the 109 Senate constituencies declared, the PDP had secured 52 seats. In the 360-seat House of Representatives, the PDP had secured 170 of the first 287 seats.
Buhari's ANPP, which had secured 25 seats in the Senate and 81 in the House, has described the results as a "coup against democracy" and called for the parliamentary elections to be rerun. The ANPP issued a statement jointly with 11 other opposition groups accusing the president's supporters of widespread ballot fraud, although the announcement stopped short of threatening a boycott of the presidential poll. Mr. Obasanjo's campaign team has poured scorn on the claims and the president has lauded the elections as "substantially devoid of massive rigging."
International election observers have praised the polls as generally peaceful but have raised a series of concerns about political intimidation and other irregularities. At least 10 people are thought to have died in clashes between supporters of rival parties, while violence caused voting to be delayed or stopped altogether in parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta and elsewhere in the country's south. Some polling stations reportedly were burned down and ballot boxes stolen.
The trouble is seen by analysts as reflecting the enduringly violent and venal nature of Nigerian politics, in which loyalties change swiftly and candidates often flip-flop between parties. Since the return of civilian rule, the country has suffered series of assassinations thought to have a political motivation, including the killing last month of one of Buhari's main campaign organizers in the southern region. A group of leading Nigerian prodemocracy groups and Human Rights Watch, based in the US, issued separate statements last week warning that the level of intimidation risked damaging the credibility of the elections.
International observers say it is impossible to judge if the parliamentary election was rigged, although they point to serious problems with the logistics of the polls, including public voting, lack of transparency in the tallying, and late distribution of voting cards to the registered electorate of almost 61 million.
Back in Oshodi, voters are gathered around shops near the polling station such as the Good Luck Barbing Salon. Daniel Ayoola, a car electrician, says he wants improvements in the country and hopes no one tries to fix the result of the presidential poll. "I don't want anyone to give me money for my vote," he says. "I would rather have the choice."