Poll hiccup damages Nigeria's image

Nigeria’s attempt to show it can run world-class polls was dealt a heavy blow when the first round in the country’s general elections was cancelled halfway through voting day on Saturday—then postponed twice in just over 24 hours.

As 73-million people lined up to decide on a new Parliament rumours started flying that the election would be cancelled. An official announcement soon followed.

The explanation seemed far-fetched, even in a country where farce and irony run as thick as the ample crude oil. Millions of result sheets, used to tally votes across the giant West African state, had arrived from abroad only at 9am an hour after polling centres opened.

Charter flights that should have carried the materials to Nigeria had been diverted instead to Japan with emergency aid, said the Independent National Electorate Commission (Inec), which runs elections in Nigeria, and replacement planes were hard to find. Inec now claims it is ready for National Assembly polls on April 9, after new ballot material arrived from China. Presidential and gubernatorial polls follow on April 16 and 26.

The messy start in the region’s economic giant comes as Côte d’Ivoire to the west struggles with post-election fighting and half a dozen Arab states further north face open rebellion or civil war.

Nigeria’s last elections, in 2007, were declared heavily rigged, so this time a respected academic, professor Attahiru Jega, was brought in to ensure that things ran smoothly. But more upsets are likely. Police are on high alert in the central city of Jos, which straddles Nigeria’s largely Muslim north and Christian south and where hundreds have been killed in sectarian violence in recent months.

A resident described the town this week as resembling a war zone, with roadblocks, a heavy army presence and sporadic gunfire disturbing the tense peace. Thousands of additional police have been deployed around the country in other flashpoints.

The bigger shake-up, however, might be political. President Goodluck Jonathan, the incumbent, is facing a revolt in many of the northern states that helped secure victory for his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in 2007.

Although a change of power at the top seems unlikely, few pundits rule out a run-off in the presidential poll and some predict a radical swing away from the ruling PDP.

The secession war
Jonathan, a veteran politician from the country’s oil-flush Bayelsa state, came to power last year when the sickly president, Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, died in office. Yar’Adua and the PDP had selected Jonathan, a southern Christian, as his vice-president, to show the people of the delta they matter, but no one thought Jonathan would jump into the pilot’s seat so soon.

When he was later selected as the PDP’s candidate for this month’s election, many in the Muslim north felt cheated and the PDP could pay for this. Jonathan’s ascension upset a gentleman’s agreement that the eight-year term of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007), a southern Christian, would be followed by eight under northern Muslim rule.

Zoning, as the consensus is known, is meant to ensure that no single group in Nigeria is dominated for too long by another, a fear that fuelled the Biafran secession war. Several presidential candidates hope to profit from the widely held belief in the north that it simply isn’t the turn of a Christian.

Chief among them is Muhammadu Buhari (68), a former military ruler and the only man who could give Jonathan a run for his money. In power after a New Year’s Eve coup in 1983 for barely two years, Buhari was renowned for his “war against indiscipline”, which aimed to stamp out corruption and cajole Nigerians into standing in orderly lines.

He has again threatened to crack down on state governors and others who live lavishly off ill-gotten gains.

Buhari has strong support in many of the key northern states such as Kaduna, Sokoto and Kano, where the PDP’s choice of Jonathan as candidate was deeply divisive. If anybody can stop the rot in graft-ridden Nigeria, Buhari is said to be the man.

Another northern Muslim presidential aspirant is Nuhu Ribadu, lauded for his running of Nigeria’s anticorruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

But all the talk about who might win is academic if results over the next few weeks fail to reflect the voters’ will. A repeat of 2007 would be disastrous for Nigeria’s image as a serious regional power.

Inec has put in place a number of measures to curb rigging, including posting election results publicly at each polling centre and allowing Nigerians to witness counting, however long it takes.

This is a start. If Inec surprises all and does the job better than it did last Saturday Nigerians might at long last get leaders who look beyond the trough and start rebuilding a broken state with colossal potential.



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