On the eve of Nigeria’s presidential elections, papers portray Africa’s most populous nation dangling between glory and chaos. The United States’ fifth-largest supplier of crude oil could see its first-ever peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to another, or—with political, ethnic, and religious tensions mounting in the run-up to the polls—the outcome could be severe unrest in one of Africa’s most volatile zones. Johannesburg’s Business Day said, “At stake is not just the future of [Nigeria], but the stability of the war-torn West African region.”
The election for president and state governors, set for April 19, comes in an atmosphere of violence and suspicion, with widespread charges of fraud in last weekend’s parliamentary vote. More than 20 people have died in the violence that followed that election, in which the People’s Democratic Party of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo won control of the legislature. Nigeria’s Daily Trust reportedthat 29 political parties reject the results of the national assembly poll, charging vote-rigging by the PDP. Obasanjo’s strongest challenger, Muhammadu Buhari—a fellow military-general-turned-president—called for “mass action” if officials try to rig the presidential election, though he stopped short of calling for a boycott of the presidential vote. According to Nigeria’s independent This Day, Buhari said, “We would like to emphasize that any repeat of the fraud of April 12, a fraud we have rejected in totality, will result in mass action, and in consequences which no one can today foresee.” Buhari did not elaborate on his “mass action” threat, but the phrase is often used in Nigeria to refer to widespread and often violent protests.
It comes as no surprise that the Obasanjo camp sees things differently. Nigeria’s liberal Vanguard newspaper quoted Obasanjo praising the process: “Let us salute the elimination of massive rigging, the drastic reduction in incidences of violence at the polling stations.” The president admitted that some irregularities crept into the national assembly vote but said they were “nowhere near the predictions of those who thought these elections would turn Nigeria into a battlefield.” An op-ed in the Daily Trust was equally upbeat: “Nothing was perfect last Saturday. There were lapses here and there but what any optimist can say is that despite the shortcomings, the monumental earthquake we witnessed is an indication that democracy has come to stay in Nigeria.”
An op-ed in This Day called on protesters to respect the election process and go through the proper channels to pursue their accusations. “All players must first seek the victory of the system, otherwise the field would be impaired,” the paper said. “That is why those who feel aggrieved should not reach for bullets or cudgels. They should calmly proceed to the election tribunals already established if they have genuine claims to make. It is all part of the painstaking process of building a liberal democracy.”
Assessments of the parliamentary election by outside monitors are still coming in. A preliminary statement by a Commonwealth observer group noted widespread logistical problems that must be addressed before the second round of polling but congratulated Nigeria for a “generally peaceful” vote.
While it is widely held that Nigeria has escaped its vicious cycle of military coup and countercoup for good, tensions surrounding the current elections threaten severe deterioration. The Mail & Guardian of Johannesburg said, “Few observers believe that the military could or would step in again to take control, as it has so often since Nigeria won independence in 1960. But in a country where localised ethnic, political and religious feuding has claimed at least 10 000 lives in the four years since Obasanjo came to power, the bitterness provoked by the election has sparked fears of more blood-letting.”
Religious feuding has long plagued Nigeria, where about half the nation’s 120 million people are Muslim and about 40 percent Christian. The Times of London reported this week from the northern state of Kaduna that some in the predominantly Muslim north accuse local politicians of exploiting religious issues for political gains. One human rights activist told the paper, “Religion here has become more important than the provision of roads, schools and electricity.” The activist charged that “northern political elites are deliberately manipulating religious fears.” The Times concluded, “Although the country will be congratulated on upholding the democratic process, the threat of a new era of destabilising religious intolerance and violence has never been greater.” (Obasanjo is a Christian from the south; his main challenger, Buhari, is a northern Muslim.)
Obasanjo’s election in May 1999 ushered in hope of new liberties, economic improvement, and a crackdown on corruption, but the reality has fallen far short of expectations. According to the Times, living conditions for most Nigerians have not improved: “There are more individual freedoms in a country where summary arrest and torture were once common, but hope that democracy would breathe life into the country’s economy has dwindled.” An op-ed in the Daily Telegraph offered this dismal assessment: “While the fear of rule by dictatorship may have gone, little else has changed. The same people, or their placemen, are still in power—the same self-perpetuating elite awarding themselves lucrative contracts for vital facilities that never get built.” The op-ed said that due to vast corruption, Nigeria, “despite having oil reserves the size of Kuwait’s, is unable to provide basic services to its people.”
An op-ed in the Vanguard said problems surrounding the elections are a natural and necessary step in democratization and must not derail the process. “The question now is, should Nigerians continue to abort democracy because of the fundamental symptoms of a growing democracy which a clique continues to use as excuse for aborting the will and wish of a people?”