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May 06, 2010

New Nigerian President Vows Electoral Reform Before Next Year's Vote

by Scott Stearns

Nigeria's new president says he will make sweeping electoral reforms before next year's nationwide vote. He has laid out an aggressive agenda to complete the term of former President Umaru Yar'Adua, who died late Wednesday.

In their time of mourning, President Goodluck Jonathan says Nigerians must aspire to uphold the values that Mr. Yar'Adua represented.

"We must, in the midst of such great adversity, continue to garner our collective efforts towards upholding the values which our departed leader represented," said President Jonathan. "In this regard, our total commitment to good governance, electoral reform, and the fight against corruption will be pursued with greater vigor."

President Yar'Adua and then-vice-president Jonathan came to power in a 2007 election that was widely criticized by political opponents for voter intimidation and ballot-box stuffing. Mr. Yar'Adua recognized the flawed nature of that vote and set out to make Nigerian elections more transparent.

President Jonathan says that mission must now be completed before local government, legislative, and presidential elections scheduled for next year.

"We must enshrine the best standards in our democratic practice," he said. "One of the true tests will be  to ensure that all votes count and are counted in the upcoming general elections."

U.S. President Barack Obama says Mr. Yar'Adua was committed to creating lasting peace in Nigeria and continuing that work is an important part of honoring his legacy.

U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley:

"President Yar'Adua was working towards building strong democratic institutions based on constitutional processes, and we know that he would want Nigeria to continue on this civilian democratic path," said P.J. Crowley. "We urge all Nigerians to place their faith and support firmly behind orderly, democratic, and constitutional mechanisms."

The change of leadership is not so dramatic for Nigeria as President Jonathan has been running the country for the last several months because of Mr. Yar'Adua's prolonged medical absence. He had already appointed a new Cabinet and started leading efforts to boost electricity supplies.

"I want to reassure Nigerians that the pledges which we have made to improve the socio-economic situation which we face through improved access to electricity, water, education, health facilities, and other social amenities will continue to be given the needed emphasis," said Goodluck Jonathan.

Improving the economy in Africa's largest oil producer means preventing a resurgence of violence in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

"The efforts at ensuring the sustenance of peace and development in the Niger Delta as well as the security of life and property around the entire country will be a top most priority in the remaining period of this administration," he said.

President Yar'Adua secured an amnesty deal with Niger Delta militants last year. But the plan to supply job training and a monthly stipend to former rebels lost momentum because of his health problems. Nigerian security forces now say former gunmen frustrated with the pace of the amnesty plan are once again stealing oil.

Akwa Ibom Senator Effiong Bob says it is up to President Jonathan and the National Assembly to follow through with Mr. Yar'Adua's strong start in the Niger Delta.

"Militancy has drastically reduced because of his action," said Effiong Bob. "What we need now is the continuation and completion of the policy initiated by him."

At the most, President Jonathan has just one year to accomplish these goals before voters go to the polls to choose a new leader.

Under an unofficial power-sharing agreement between northern and southern Nigeria, the ruling party would name a northern politician to run for what would have been President Yar'Adua's second term.

President Jonathan is from the south so would not be a candidate under that arrangement. But there is no constitutional provision stopping him from running for his own mandate, and he has not ruled out doing so.

How much he can get done in the next year may well determine whether President Jonathan challenges the ruling party's regional apportionment or decides to run as an independent.