Nigeria heads for impasse

Nigeria’s presidential elections this weekend are going to be messy, and if last week’s gubernatorial contest is anything to go by, they are unlikely to be free and fair.

Reports of electoral fraud ranging from snatched ballot boxes and missing names on the ballots themselves to a complete unavailability of electoral materials in areas such as the Niger delta have undermined what little credibility the Independent National Electoral Commission has left, and have prompted calls from observers for the elections to be cancelled and held again.

Human Rights Watch said this week that “voting failed to take place in many areas where Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission later reported voter turnout in excess of 90%”.

The commission has responded that disgruntled candidates can take the matter up with the electoral courts, but has not addressed other criticisms, serving to entrench its image as a biased body that is failing to do its job properly.

It claims the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has, by the latest accounts, won the gubernatorial elections in 26 of 36 states that have reported results.

Until Monday it looked as if the PDP would also sweep the presidential elections, as its main rival, Vice-President Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress, had been put out of commission by an anti-corruption body’s findings that he mismanaged public funds.

The electoral commission ruled that because of this he could not run, but the Supreme Court overturned the ruling this week and Abubakar’s name should be on the ballot on Saturday.

Quite how that will happen is unclear, as a large number of ballots have been printed. The commission has said that it respects the ruling and that it can still add Abubakar’s name.

Distrust of the electoral commission is one reason why Abubakar, along with several other opposition parties, including that of Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of the All Nigeria People’s Party, on Tuesday demanded a delay in elections, saying they would boycott them if this was not granted.

The Coalition of Opposition Parties is demanding the disbandment of the commission and the cancellation of the gubernatorial and state-level House of Assembly elections. The commission has merely said that the elections are set to go ahead.

Nigerian political analysts indicate that even if Abubakar runs, the PDP has already set in motion a process of influence that will guarantee victory. But they warn that a new PDP government is likely to face a severe crisis of legitimacy if the election is perceived to have been generally fraudulent.

The stakes in the elections are high for everyone. President Olusegun Obasanjo is poised to be the first Nigerian leader to transfer power from one civilian leader to another after decades of military dictatorship that ended when he won elections in 1999.

Ordinary Nigerians want the election to be about progress and development. Sylvester Odion-Akhaine, director of the Centre for Constitutionalism and Demilitarisation, a civil society grouping that fought for a return to civilian rule, said that Nigerians have failed to see the “democratic dividend. We have huge foreign reserves, but no middle class in Nigeria. There are recurring fuel shortages, no electricity.”

He added that Nigerians have been sorely disappointed by Obasanjo. “In 1999, there was a tolerant population, people had low expectations. The feeling was that anything was better than the military. After the first four years, there was disillusionment.”

There are real fears that fraudulent elections could plunge the country into a national crisis. Some argue that one aspect of the elections that could militate against that is the fact that the three main candidates are from the north of the country.

The north-south divide has long played an important role in Nigerian politics, and after being governed by Obasanjo, who is from the south-west, for eight years, it is understood that power must now return to the north.

Odion-Akhaine said the three northern candidates might find a way of settling the parties’ differences and avoid a descent into chaos. “In the north it is easier to reach a political consensus. The political elite there wants to remedy the negative image it acquired during years of misrule. This could help avert the worst.”

As his successor, Obasanjo has chosen Umaru Musa Yar’adua, governor of the northern state of Katsina and a relative unknown on the national political scene. Yar’adua, described as lacking charisma, is “one of the most obscure governors, whose only known public view is that he will continue Obasanjo’s reforms”, according to the International Crisis Group.

Abubakar is a former governor from Adamawa state in the north-east and was also a senior customs official. He has been active in politics since the early Nineties.

Buhari, who is also considered a serious contender, is a former military general who ruled the country from 1983 to 1985. He is generally described as “tough and disciplined, and not corrupt” and people from different backgrounds say he might be the leader Nigeria needs now.

Abubakar and Buhari’s parties have been in talks about forming an alliance, which analysts believe could be a real challenge to the PDP, but they add that it is unclear whether either would yield to the other in the bid for the presidency.

With time running out, the focus remains on whether they will even contest the elections. There is much concern that if they do not, and the election goes ahead, the political impasse will create a dangerous void.

Corruption commissions’ credibility in question

The Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) is in trouble with the citizens of Nigeria. But not, as its suggestive name might imply, because it is an organisation working to realise the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s ambition to stay in power forever, reports Stephanie Wolters from Lagos.

The PHCN is the national electricity supplier and it is in trouble because the US$2,5-billion it was allocated to fix the decrepit Nigerian electricity grid has disappeared. The money is gone, but the lights are still off and much of modern life in Nigeria is possible thanks only to expensive diesel-powered generators. A local joke is that PHCN actually stands for “Please hold your candle now”.

Eight years after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo (pictured) rode to power on a wave of democratic enthusiasm, vowing to fight Nigeria’s legendary corruption, the reality is that very little has changed. Observers have credited him and his government with creating two anti-corruption bodies—the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Matters Commission and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which chairman Nuhu Ribadu, a policeman, proudly boasts has recovered $5-billion. But anti-corruption activists in Nigeria criticise the government for two main reasons: that the staff of the commissions were appointed by the president himself, and so were unlikely to find fault with the ruling class, and that, as the national elections drew closer, the EFCC was used to eliminate key political rivals.

Retired Major General Ilasehinde Williams, deputy director of Transparency International in Nigeria, doubts the credibility of the commissions and questions whether they were really necessary in the first place: “The president is responsible for nominating the key people … and the commissions report to the president …Transparency International in Nigeria believes that we don’t need these institutions because the penal code is sufficient … but people here are fond of creating institutions.”

Williams says that while some of the EFCC’s work has been positive, it has been far from comprehensive. “It is easy to catch people who are corrupt, but many have been let off. The $5-billion that has been recovered has not been accounted for.”

Critics say that since last year the EFCC has also become increasingly politicised, engaging in a witch-hunt against many of Obasanjo’s main political rivals. The most prominent target has been Atiku Abubakar, the country’s vice-president, with whom the president has fallen out, in part over Abubakar’s opposition to Obasanjo’s failed bid for a third term.

The EFCC accused Abubakar of mismanaging the Petroleum Technology Management Fund, and on this basis the Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) subsequently disqualified him from the presidential race, which he is contesting for the Action Congress.

This week the Supreme Court ruled that Inec’s actions were illegal, but the damage to the credibility of the EFCC and Obasanjo’s government has been considerable, especially as Abubakar has countered with his own allegations of corruption in the presidency.

How this dispute between Obasanjo and Abubakar will play out will be determined by this weekend’s elections. Whoever wins though, Williams says, is unlikely to be able to make a real difference in the fight against corruption, as the process of politics is itself tainted: “Politicians cannot deal with corruption. It takes money to be elected—where does that money come from?”


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