Amid voter registration delays and a dispute over the exclusion of a major candidate, Nigeria prepares for a historic presidential election that could see the country’s first handoff of power from one elected civilian leader to the next.
Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo is approaching the end of his second four-year term, the constitutional limit for holding the presidency. Obasanjo’s exit was cemented last year when Nigeria’s Senate rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed him to run for another term.
The decision was hailed by many as a victory for the country’s young democracy, but political violence during the primaries and questions about the ability of the Independent National Electoral Commission to finish preparations for the April 21 election have brought that system into doubt once again.
Along with the rush to get registration logs updated and poll locations equipped, fears of delayed polls were exacerbated when the list of approved candidates was released by the INEC on March 15. Nigeria’s Vice President Atiku Abubakar was left off the list because of accusations of corruption.
A Nigerian court had already cleared Abubakar for the election and ruled INEC has no power to disqualify candidates, so the decision set off a wave of concern about political sabotage. The INEC, despite its title as independent, is financially tied to Obasanjo, and he has direct influence on some of INEC’s senior officials, according to an International Crisis Group report on the elections.
Abubakar fell out of favor with Obasanjo last year for opposing the term amendment, and the two politicians have traded accusations of corruption ever since.
Abubakar defected to the opposition party Action Congress to run for the presidency, while Obasanjo picked a little known governor of a northern state and former chemistry teacher, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, to run for the ruling People’s Democratic Party.
Abubakar is now contesting his exclusion from the ballot. On April 3, his appeal was struck down by the Court of Appeal, then hours later the Federal High Court, a lower court, ordered the INEC to include his name. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court.
Peter Lewis, director of the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University who works with the research and data collection group Afro Barometer, called the situation a crisis for Nigeria’s democracy.
“It was clear for a long time that the president and his party wanted Abubakar banned from contention,” said Lewis. “Many people feel this is a heavy handed power grab by the president and the ruling party.”
The death of 79-year-old approved opposition candidate Adebayo Adefarati, of Alliance for Democracy, on March 29, also raised questions about a possible delay of the election. Nigeria’s electoral act calls for a rescheduling if a candidate dies after nomination papers are delivered.
Hamisu Shira, chairman of Nigeria’s House Committee on Electoral Matters, said the death should not affect the polls as long as Alliance for Democracy presents another presidential candidate.
This is the third election since the end of military rule of the country in 1999, all of which raised concerns with international monitors about fairness and transparency. But the run up to the 2007 election has generated more criticism by Nigerians than ever, because, Lewis said, they are less willing to accept errors in the name of helping the democracy get its footing.
“The expectations are higher on the part of Nigerians that this election will allow them to determine if democracy is working in the country or if it is the same old games,” said Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute.
Though support for the PDP is not as pervasive as it once was, it does have a plurality of support, but not a majority, according to Afro Barometer statistics. Obasanjo’s behavior over the past year, and some of the failed policies of the last eight years have worked against the party.
With Abubakar’s eligibility still in question, the third major candidate, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria People’s Party is the best positioned challenger. Buhari lost to Obasanjo in the 2003 presidential election.
Even with 24 approved candidates, Nigerians may have trouble distinguishing between the candidates’ plans for the country. Politics in Nigeria is driven primarily by candidate personality, said Stephanie Blanton, Africa regional program director for the International Republican Institute. Most of the candidates have voiced similar concerns about economic reforms, and the desire to provide jobs and reign in violence in the Delta region.
“These are not really robust issue-based campaigns,” said Blanton.
In addition, the three main candidates are all Muslims from the north, mitigating some of the effects of the strong religious and regional loyalties in the country.
These similarities are no coincidence. They are part of an unofficial agreement made in 1999 to help smooth religious and regional rifts. Obasanjo, a Christian from the south, was elected with the understanding that the next president would be a Muslim from the North.
The agreement was also made in hopes of preventing political violence, but Nigeria’s elections have continued to be dogged by conflict.
Three gubernatorial candidates were killed between June and August 2006 during campaigns for the state elections that will take place on April 14, a week before the presidential and federal legislature elections.
In both past and present campaigns, political parties have been accused of hiring local gangs, known as “area boys,” to intimidate opponents or voters.
“There was a lot of violence when the parties were going through the primary process. We saw a lot of violence within political parties,” said Fomunyoh. “In recent weeks we have seen some violence between different party supporters.”
The Nigerian police recently announced they are ordering 40,000 AK-47s and other equipment to quell violence expected in the Anambra, Oyo and Lagos states, according to the Nigerian paper the Guardian.
With security preparations amping up, international monitors and others following the election still have doubts over whether the INEC will have all the necessary infrastructure in place if Nigerians head to the polls on time this month.
“Here we are again, for the third time in eight years, watching authorities scramble in a chaotic situation to put the electoral machinery in place,” said Lewis. “This all could be avoided, which makes many in Nigeria perceive it as a calculated situation.”Top