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Nigeria Enjoys Greater Freedom in 2007, but Reconciliation Still a Dream

  • Gilbert da Costa

The 2007 elections in Nigeria, which signaled the first handover of power from one elected government to another since independence from Britain in 1960, were widely condemned as flawed. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports that the discredited polls are casting a long shadow over the administration's attempt to address the country's challenges.

President Umaru Yar'Adua, a former chemistry teacher and state governor, took office in May with a pledge to urgently address critical issues like the growing insurgency in the oil-producing region, uncertain power supply and crumbling infrastructure.

Six months into his term, the new president is facing growing criticism over his inability to tackle these problems.

Abuja-based political analyst Maxi Okwu says the legal challenge to the president's electoral victory is a huge distraction.

"Whoever faces a court process of this magnitude will have what we call 'the sword of Damocles' hanging over his head. So of course the president will be distracted. The fact that he was a reluctant or drafted president; it cannot but cause him a lot of anxiety," said Okwu.

A special election court is scheduled to deliver its judgment on the discredited polls early next year. Everyone is talking about what would happen if President YarAdua's victory were overturned.

Abdullahi Jallo, a supporter of the president and a leading member of the ruling Peoples' Democratic Party, says the specter of political chaos in a country with a history of instability cannot be ruled out.

"The courts themselves, they know it was the cancellation of an election that has thrown Algeria into war," he said. "Two wrongs will not make a right that is the logic. This is what people should understand. That the election is over and the government is performing."

But even the president's political opponents acknowledge the political climate has changed in the past six months. Okwu says President Yar'Adua deserves praise for his tolerance and respect for the rule of law, which contrasts with the brash demeanor of his predecessor, a retired army general.

"You have to give Yar'Adua one thing, the fact that he has brought in democratic temperament to the executive," said said Okwu. "Judged against the Obasanjo administration that was lawless and had contempt for other institutions of state, YarAdua has brought in a democratic temperament, which is a welcome step forward. That is all I can say for him."

Tensions in the oil-producing Niger Delta, where several armed gangs are demanding greater local access to oil revenues, are having a far-reaching impact on the oil industry, with output down by more than 20 percent in the past two years.

Armed groups say the new government's pledge to address their grievances is yet to be fulfilled. Rebel commander Tom Pullo says peace talks should be anchored on ending what he sees as the neglect of the impoverished delta communities.

"We want to control our resources ourselves, we want the development that is there in other parts of the country to be in the Niger Delta," said Pullo. "For example, we do not have good drinking water, we do not have good schools. There is no electricity, and we produce the income the country is using today."

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with 140 million people, and it is also the continent's biggest exporter of crude oil.

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