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Nigeria Elections - 2002-05-02

Nigeria's next presidential election is at least a year away. But last week's declaration of interest in another term by incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo has raised the political stakes.

The declaration was made in the Federal Capital territory – Abuja -- amidst pomp and fanfare. In attendance were throngs of ordinary people as well as top politicians including many governors from the ruling Peoples Democratic Party or P-D-P. Analysts say the crowd was meant to send a strong signal that Mr. Obasanjo will muster enough electoral support to return him into power.

Mr. Obasanjo himself says his achievements over the past three years are enough to get him re-elected for a second term. But a political scientist at the University of Lagos -- Dr. Babatunde Babawale -- says he should not be too confident. Dr. Babawale says among the achievements of the Obasanjo administration is "a stricter observance of fundamental liberties." He says "people can write about the President, there’s freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of expression." He adds "there has also been some attempt to enhance the pay package of workers, although he said more could still be done to improve the lot of the working people of the country."

Dr. Babawale says the down side has been in the area of security. He says "the level of insecurity across the country is alarming and the number of deaths that are recorded that are recorded every day could have been brought down by a more serious minded civilian regime." He says he "thinks the administration could be more democratic in its dealings with people and organizations. " Major ethnic and political groups have also been reacting to President Obasanjo's declaration. In the Yoruba southwest, from where Mr. Obasanjo hails, human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi says he will run against him on the platform of the National Conscience Party if it is registered. The Igbos in the East and the Hausa-Fulani in the north say they will field their own candidates -- though some governors and top politicians from the area attended last week's Abuja ceremony and pledged support for the incumbent.

President Obasanjo's opponents say their regions have been marginalised --- meaning that they have not benefited politically and economically from his government. But he denied the charges during a recent talk show broadcast live with reporters. He says all states have benefited from political appointments and some development projects. Despite this, a group of influential Hausa-Fulani politicians -- the northern Arewa Consultative Forum -- says it is screening those who would like to be candidates for any of the political parties. The influential Tell magazine quotes the Governor of northwestern Sokoto state – Attahiru Bafarawa - as saying that the north, which backed Mr. Obasanjo – a southerner and a Yoruba -- in 1999 now wants power back. According to him, Mr. Obasanjo should have directed more development projects to the north.

President Obasanjo has largely stood aside as northerners voted in the controversial Islamic law, or Sharia – which includes corporal punishments for adultery and theft. According to informal opinion polls and northern newspaper analysts, his neutrality in the matter has not won him the support of northern voters or opinion makers. Among the northern names being put forward as potential presidential candidates are former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari and, a member of Mr. Obasanjo's Peoples Democratic Party Abubakar Rimi. Another former army officer who led a failed secession bid in the 1960s - Odumegwu Ojukwu - is being put forward in the predominantly Ibo east.

Abubakar Muazu is an analyst and teacher of Mass Communication in the northeastern University of Maiduguri. He says despite opposition in the north and other areas, President Obasanjo might still emerge the consensus candidate of the different political blocks even including the North. Mr. Muazu says he believes what is happening is that the members of the political class are weighing their options and deploying their own strategies to see how best they can fit into the political fray. He says "at the end of it, you may be surprised to see that they will all rally round President Olusegun Obasanjo if the political calculation is right for them and for the country. But where they perceive that President Obasanjo is not going to do their own bidding they will certainly come up with a candidate to stand up against him."

Activist lawyer and politician, Femi Falana does not agree with Mr. Muazu. He says support for Obasanjo's second term by some top politicians in the three registered political parties suggests that he might have secretly been adopted as sole candidate. He says instead of talking about how well or not the president has performed he is being presented as the only person who can maintain Nigeria’s unity just as the late military ruler – Sani Abacha was said to be Nigeria’s only saviour before his sudden death in 1999.

Mr. Falana says "I think there is a general agreement among the existing three political parties to allow the status quo to remain. That in effect means that the three political parties may dissolve into one because they have been working to turn Nigeria to a one-party state and the situation calls for vigilance on the part of Nigerian people to ensure that new political parties particularly those ones that are ideologically oriented are allowed to come into the political space and contest, and give these people a very serious challenge." Some other political analysts are adopting a wait and see attitude before commenting on next year's presidential contest. They say since the Independent National Electoral Commission - INEC -- is in the process of considering the applications of new parties to be registered and allowed to contest elections, it is difficult now to know the number, character and program of other presidential candidates who may emerge.