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Experts Call Nigerian Elections a 'Step Forward' - 2003-05-05


Reports of fraud have tarnished recent election results in Nigeria, but analysts say that, overall, the elections have marked progress toward consolidating democracy in Africa's most populous nation. Elections for state assemblies took place on Saturday, marking the third and final stage of Nigeria's first elections under civilian rule in 20 years.

As in the other two stages held last month, for parliamentary and then presidential and gubernatorial votes, there were allegations of ballot fraud.

In one instance, election monitors claim armed thugs stole ballot boxes from a polling station in southeastern Anambra state.

But overall, says political analyst Tunde Martins, the election results reflected the will of voters.

"Those disturbances or malpractice that have been noted are so isolated and cannot be easily used as a yardstick to jettison the entire political process," said Mr. Martins. "Most importantly, the critics so far have not come out to convince Nigerians of facts, empirical facts for that matter, that would justify the need to cancel the whole of the election."

President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military ruler, won re-election in the presidential vote by a landslide. His ruling People's Democratic Party took a majority of seats in parliament, a majority in most state assemblies and more than two-thirds of the country's gubernatorial offices.

But voting appeared to have been rigged at many polling stations. Meanwhile, in parts of the southeast, many voters were reportedly too frightened to cast their ballot, because of clashes there involving local militias.

There was relatively little violence during the voting itself, despite fears of large-scale violence in northern areas, the scenes of deadly communal clashes in recent years.

Aya Obe, from Nigeria's Civil Liberties Organization, said that by completely ignoring complaints of fraud, the ruling party missed a chance to alleviate discontent.

"The PDP and the president really lost an opportunity to show even the smallest degree of statesmanship, and the way that they hung on to results, which were patently ridiculous, that tarnished results that people were ready to say, 'Well, it was flawed but on balance it was okay,'" said Ms. Obe.

In the north, the opposition All Nigeria People's Party, the ANPP, did well in the three stages of the election. Ms. Obe says this means the main opposition group will not want to challenge the elections on a national level.

"I think that the question of lack of acceptance is more likely to come from the northern part of the country, where there were a lot of governors who were successfully elected on the platform of the ANPP, and they would not want to jeopardize their own political victory by calling for cancellations on behalf of a remote presidential chance," said Ms. Obe.

The ANPP's presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, called for mass action to overthrow the results, but most analysts predict there will be grudging approval.

Barrie Hoffman, who oversaw a delegation of 50 election monitors for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, says she believes that, overall, Nigeria marked a step toward consolidating democracy, despite the many problems.

"In the sense that this was only Nigeria's second time in 20 years to try to transition from one civilian administration to another, I think it was definitely a step forward," said Ms. Hoffman. "The polls were relatively peaceful. In some parts of the country, we witnessed high voter turnout, particularly in the southwest. But at the same time, we also noted numerous instances of fraud and voter intimidation and ballot-box snatching and ballot-box stuffing."

Election tribunals are expected to start considering complaints this week.

Given the reports of fraud, the first priority of President Obasanjo, when he begins his second term, will be to convince Nigerians that his new mandate is legitimate. The presidential inauguration is expected to take place on or before May 29, when his first term legally expires.