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US Expert Speaks on 2007 Nigerian Elections

Nigeria is scheduled to conduct elections for the third time since civil democracy was restored seven years ago. The violence and uncertainties that have plagued the process so far are stoking anxieties among Nigerians and international observers.

A string of assassinations and other attacks on political opponents have raised the the prospects of more violence in the run-up to Nigeria's landmark elections in 2007.

The fact that several elected officials including President Olusegun Obasanjo would not be eligible for re-election has raised the stakes for the elections.

Peter Lewis, director of the Council for African Studies at the American University in Washington and an expert on political transition in developing countries, with particular emphasis on governance in sub Saharan Africa, says with only seven months to the elections, concerns about the polls are well founded.

"I think that as I talk to Nigerians around the country, the biggest source of concern is uncertainty, that people don't feel they have enough information, they don't know when the election is going to be. They are not clear which candidates are running on which party ticket, they are not clear what the ballot paper or ballot procedure will be like on election day and they read the newspapers and they see unsettling signs of political assassinations, other unwelcome violence and they are very concerned that these things might escalate," said Lewis. "So as I listen to people, these are the things they bring up to me and I would say I share some of these concerns."

At least 15,000 people have been killed in ethnic, political and religious violence in the past seven years of democracy in Nigeria.

Politicians from the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south are arguing over who should produce the next president.

The 2007 elections would mark the first time one democratic president hands over to another since Nigeria gained independence in 1960.

Professor Lewis says says this could be the defining moment for Nigeria's democracy.

"I think it could a critical moment for Nigeria and i think that could be a positive moment or could be a very troubling moment. On the positive side, if the 2007 elections are credible and peaceful and transparent, Nigerians will come away with the feeling that this democracy is on track," he said. "On the other hand, if the election is badly flawed and very turbulent, I think that the confidence of many people will be shaken and people will have a considerable insecurity and perhaps even disillusionment about the process and the future of democracy in Nigeria."

Africa's most populous nation was ruled almost continuously for three decades. Electoral violence has remained a feature of political life in the world's eighth biggest oil exporter.