Confidence low as Nigeria votes

Nigerians head to the polls Saturday to elect a new president, just days after more than 21 people were killed in state elections.

With every flat surface and telephone pole in Nigeria's hyperkinetic commercial capital plastered with campaign posters, radio programs crowded with candidates claiming fraud, and minivans scattering campaign leaflets to pedestrians, Lagos is clearly in the throes of a major election.

But for a voter like Nurudeen Olusola – a civil servant in Lagos – all these trappings of democracy are more a sign of massive fraud than of hope. Although he voted in the state and local elections this past Saturday, and will vote again in the presidential election this Saturday, his only hope is that this incoming government will be slightly less corrupt than the last bunch.

"For the past eight years, they say they have been spending lots of money on electricity, but we don't have lights. We don't know where [the money] has gone," says Mr. Olusola, watching members of a Tae Kwon Do club practice near Lagos' National Stadium. "Nigeria is a rich country. We have resources, we have oil, but we don't know what is going on. The number of corrupt people in Nigeria is too high."

As Africa's most populous nation and biggest oil producer, Nigeria presents a unique litmus test for the expectations that democracy unleashes across the continent. Nigeria's problems – unemployment, swelling urban populations, regional separatist movements, and grinding official corruption – are common throughout Africa.

But at this crucial point in the country's history (Saturday's election should usher in the country's first-ever transfer of power from one civilian leader to another), the problems appear to be sapping the wealth and spirit of the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the US, giving this vote an explosive potential that has made Africa experts take notice.

"There is so much money being made by the elite because they have control of oil, and ordinary Nigerians have seen so little of it," says Gani Fawehinmi, a human rights activist and top attorney in Lagos. "The government has failed us in every way, in education, in employment, in giving us infrastructure, in reducing poverty." He sighs. "I fear the worst, but pray for the best."

Allegations of widespread fraud

This is a common sentiment across Nigeria, voiced by civil servants and traders, young and old alike. As results came in showing a near sweep for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) in state and local elections this past Saturday, allegations of fraud and intimidation came from all quarters. In the state of Ondo, the opposition Labour Party called for the results to be cancelled; in southeastern Abia State, where an opposition party won the governorship, it was President Olusegun Obasanjo's PDP that called for cancellation.

In the capital, Abuja, opposition leaders gathered Wednesday and Thursday to decide whether to boycott this Saturday's presidential round or to unite under a single candidate to oppose the ruling party's candidate Umaru Musa Yar'Adua.

"That is the one thing they won't do," says Iyke Ekeoma, special media adviser to Gov. Orji Kalu, an ethnic Ibo from the oil-rich southeast region. "Who would step down for the other guy? They all have the same ambition."

While international election observers say they have seen only minor irregularities, the week before the first round was full of intrigue.

Mr. Obasanjo called a national holiday to prevent his own vice president Atiku Abubakar from filing a final court appeal to overturn his expulsion from the voting list. The court eventually allowed Mr. Abubakar to run, but the confusion among voters about whether Abubakar is a candidate or not has led Abubakar's supporters to call for a boycott of the presidential election.

"It is a rotten process," says Garba Shehu, Abubakar's spokesman. "If all the voters came and voted for one guy, they still can defeat us. If you vote 50 million, he will vote 50 million and add 10 million more," though fraud.

For the ruling party, such comments are just what one expects from a sore loser.

"I think it's become normal for the opposition who lost an election to complain," says Bolaji Adebiyi, spokesman for Gov. Yar'Adua's campaign. "The ones they win are always free and fair, but the ones they lose are not free and fair."

Mr. Adebiyi bats down corruption charges against the ruling PDP with promises of economic growth. "All I can tell you is that Yar'Adua will ensure that in the next 10 years, Nigeria will be one of the top 20 economies in the world."

Voters longing for improvements

Most voters in Lagos say they would be happy with much simpler goals, such as clean drinking water and spending at least one night without a lengthy power cut.

"I've been voting since the 1980s, but I changed my mind when I saw that nothing changed," says Balogun Edward, a weightlifting champion, taking a break from training outside the National Stadium. "What we need in Nigeria is factories where people can work. If enough companies come in Nigeria, people will stay, and nobody will bother to risk their lives on the high seas to get to Europe."

"In Nigeria, our politics here is just like a war," says Taofeeq Animashun, an avid fan of the Nigerian national football team. "If someone wins election, we're supposed to follow them. But here in Nigeria, The person who loses will fight the winner, and it will be like war. Before the elections, many lives were wasted in riots. Only God can help us now."

Not all voters are cynical. Michael Ajaye, a systems analyst at a law office, says that he sees signs of hope in the growing power of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a new agency created by Obasanjo to stamp out corruption. Among the officials caught by EFCC are three state governors and the nation's inspector general of police.

"We're going to have problem spots," says Mr. Ajaye, "and Nigerian politics are still being dictated by big money. But the orientation of the people is changing. They are beginning to appreciate people who have credibility. It's getting better, gradually, only with some hiccups here and there."

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