Looming Violence Clouds Nigeria Election
The Associated Press
By Glen McKenzie

President Olusegun Obasanjo was seeking a second term Saturday in elections that posed the stiffest test for Nigeria’s young democracy since his election four years ago ended 15 years of military rule.

Soldiers deployed nationwide after the opposition threatened violence. The country’s election commission appealed to voters to accept the results of the ballot for 36 governorships and the presidency “in the name of democracy and peace.”

“Everything is being done to ensure that hitches do not occur,” Steve Oseneke, spokesman for Nigeria’s election commission, said.

Polls opened at 3 a.m. EDT and were to close at 10 a.m. EDT, with first results expected Sunday. There were no immediate reports of violence as the voting started.

Obasanjo, a former military ruler who transformed himself into a civilian statesman, faces 19 challengers, including three other ex-army officers. Several opposition leaders have warned that their supporters could launch violent protests if the ruling party uses fraud to win the elections.

Obasanjo’s rule has brought limited improvements in individual and press freedoms. But outbreaks of political, religious and ethnic violence have left more than 10,000 people dead since 1999, including hundreds of civilians massacred by government troops.

Moderate reforms in Nigeria’s chaotic telecommunications and power sectors under Obasanjo’s administration have been offset by accusations that the government has failed to tackle corruption and poverty, Obasanjo’s main campaign promises in the last election.

Despite being one of the world’s largest oil exporters, Nigeria consistently ranks among the poorest and most corrupt nations.

Troops in armored personnel carriers and on foot were being deployed to protect polling stations and head off potential violence across Africa’s most populous nation, especially in the troubled oil-producing Niger Delta, where ethnic and political clashes have already taken more than 100 lives since March.

“We are prepared for anything, be it peace or trouble,” army spokesman Chukwuemeka Onwuamaegbu said.

Nigeria has never had a successful democratic transition from one civilian administration to another. The elections four years ago were overseen by the military. Previous civilian-run elections were overturned by army coups.

“We are on the edge of an abyss. These elections will decide our fate,” presidential aspirant and longtime human rights campaigner Gani Fawehinmi said. “I only hope our democratic process will survive.”

Obasanjo’s main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, has threatened “mass action” – a term in Nigeria generally referring to violent protests – if the upcoming ballot is rigged. As a military officer, Buhari launched a coup in 1983 that toppled Nigeria’s previous civilian ruler, Shehu Shagari, after elections that were generally derided as flawed.

Another presidential candidate, Emeka Ojukwu, a retired army officer who led Biafra rebels in Nigeria’s devastating 1967-70 civil war, has urged peaceful demonstrations. But he warned they might turn violent if there is evidence of fraud.

A ballot last week for 109 seats in the Senate and 360 in the House of Representatives was marred by scattered violence and opposition claims of rigging. With more than 85 percent of the results in, Obasanjo’s ruling party has won an absolute majority in both parliament chambers.

Election observers have questioned some results and voter turnout figures, particularly in parts of Nigeria’s oil-rich southern swamps and the east, where monitors and journalists saw few signs of voting.

“Voting conditions were flawed and deficient enough to allow fraud to take place,” Thayer Scott, spokesman of the Washington-based International Republican Institute, said Friday. He stressed the group’s 50-strong observer team in Nigeria did not yet know whether the vote was rigged.

Oboko Bello, an ethnic Ijaw activist leader in the marshy waterways of the Niger Delta, said his militants were extending a boycott of last week’s legislative vote to the upcoming ballot as well. Ijaw militants are angry about the setup of voting districts, which they say favor rival Itsekiris.

The political process “bears no semblance to democracy and has no relevance to our people,” Bello said.

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