Nigerians head to polls for pivotal vote

Nigeria's parliamentary and presidential elections, slated to begin Saturday, aim to tackle corruption and internal tension while setting an example for other African nations soon to hold votes.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Supporters of presidential aspirant, Gen. Muhammad Buhari, react, during a campaign rally in Lagos, Nigeria, on Wednesday, April 6. A former military ruler of Nigeria has gained support in his third bid to become president of the oil-rich nation. Gen. Buhari ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985 after a military coup deposed elected President Shehu Shagari. Nigerians will vote for a new president on April 16.

Nigerians head to the polls Saturday to kick off a three-week-long election season that could put democracy here on a new and more promising path – or further entrench a political elite accused by many of driving Africa's most populous nation into the ground.

Stakes are high, both internationally and within the country, for the fourth election since Nigeria's transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule in 1999. Nigerians, naturally, seek a strong leader at a time of growing disenchantment with government and clashes between ethnic and religious groups. The international community, meanwhile, hopes credible elections could positively, albeit indirectly, shape the other 17 polls to be held in Africa this year.

"The quality of these elections will influence how the United States and other nations view and interact with Nigeria, and in turn how effectively Nigeria can exercise leadership internationally," US Ambassador to Nigeria Terrence McCulley told the Monitor. "Certainly a credible and transparent election would strengthen Nigeria's authority to exercise responsible leadership in Africa and around the world."

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Nigerians hope the vote will, at the very least, avoid the fraud and violence of the 2007 election. At best, legitimate elections will reflect of the will of Nigeria's 73 million registered voters – people such as Aondona Iortim, a taxi driver from the country's "Middle Belt" region, who says he is desperate for this vote to be a "real election" that represents the wishes of disgruntled citizens like himself.

Desperate for a 'real election'

"Change is happening around the world and we want change here [in Nigeria] so badly," says Mr. Iortim, adding that he wants a shakeup in Nigerian leadership. He thinks that opposition presidential candidate Gen. Muhammad Buhari is the man for the job.

Tomorrow's parliamentary vote will reflect the standing of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) among the electorate and could have an impact on its performance in the April 16 presidential polls.

If the parliamentary vote is free and fair, says Nasir Abbas, head of a civil society group in the northern city of Kaduna, then the reelection of the PDP president "is not guaranteed." Many Nigerian citizens, particularly in the country's "core north" region, see this election as the first real threat to the country's entrenched political order in the past 12 years of marginally democratic rule.

Civil society activists and everyday voters are aware of the potential of this vote to be a game-changer for the prospects of democracy in their country, in large part due to the leadership of Attahiru Jega as electoral commission chairman. In his short time in the position, Mr. Jega has driven electoral reforms that lay the foundation for a more free and fair vote.

"For the first time in Nigerian history, voters are allowed to stay behind to see the counting process," says Mr. Abbas, noting that Jega's approach will make it more difficult for those seeking to rig the vote to succeed.

A gentleman's agreement

Electoral procedures aside, Nigeria's historically explosive regional politics present the real test. The core issue is whether the ruling PDP's "gentleman's agreement" will withstand this elections cycle. The deal, enshrined in the party's constitution, holds that the presidency will rotate between the northern and southern elite of the party every eight years.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, assumed office after the death of former President Umaru Yar Adua, a northern Muslim elected in 2007 who died in March 2010. Mr. Jonathan's promotion from vice president meant that the northern Muslim bloc did not get its chance to fulfill the eight years at the helm. When Jonathan won the PDP presidential primary in January, many northern voters expressed disapproval that the south might once again rule the nation.

Nigeria's decade-plus of civilian rule was dominated by a southerner, the strongman politician Olesugun Obasanjo. Mr. Obasanjo succeeded in ousting much of the country's northern elite from positions of power, replacing them with a more pliable and younger generation of northerners in his government.

The Nigerian newspaper This Day predicted Thursday that Gen. Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), the most popular opposition candidate and a former military ruler dislodged by a 1985 bloodless coup, stands a solid chance of sweeping most of the "core North" states.

"Democracy is a game of numbers," said Nigerian journalist Buhari Bello Bello, highlighting yet another of the factors stoking the fractious north-south tensions in the 2011 polls. The sheer number of northern voters who are registered – 19 million for the northwest region of the country alone, according to unofficial sources – could force a presidential runoff between Jonathan and Buhari.

"The PDP is going to pay in the presidential race," says Professor A.H. Yadudu, a Harvard-educated professor of law at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria's second largest metropolis with a population of more than six million. The ruling party "will not generally do well" in the northern part of the country, he says.

Rounding out the presidential ticket are a host of colorful candidates, including a former pop star turned wealthy preacher, but former anticorruption czar Mallam Nuhu Ribadu is the only other contender who could impact the race's outcome. His party, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), could ally with Buhari in the case of a runoff.

Regional ripples

Meanwhile the twice-delayed parliamentary polls still face logistical hurdles. Late on Thursday, electoral commission chief Jega addressed the nation once more to announce that polling in 15 electoral districts and 48 federal constituencies across the country will not take place as planned on Saturday due to challenges related to ballot materials – the same problem that led Jega to halt the process last Saturday.

Although the percentage of polling stations affected is relatively minor – 15 percent of electoral districts and 13 percent of federal constituencies – voters and international observers fear more delays will hurt the credibility of the entire enterprise.

Addressing a high-profile delegation from the observer mission of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), President Jonathan said Thursday that "if we don't get it right, we can't lead anybody or call anybody to order when they miss the mark."

In an interview with the Monitor, Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute, who has observed all three elections since military rule ended in 1999, says this year's elections are more critical than those of the past because they will determine whether Nigeria's example will "pull up other countries" on the continent or have a destabilizing effect.

Despite the facade of democratic civilian rule that has held up since 1999, the dividends of democracy have not yet hit the ground in the country that is home to one in every six Africans. "These elections offer the hope of change," says Professor Yadudu, "perhaps the hope of something better."

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