Nigeria’s elections, which are scheduled to begin on April 14, are being called the most important event in Nigeria since the country became independent from Britain in 1960. But pre-election violence has swept many parts of the land, and monitors warn that the voting may not be free and fair. However, President Olusegun Obasanjo is expected to turn power over to a successor – the first civilian-to-civilian transition in Nigeria’s history. Analysts warn, though, that whatever the outcome of the elections, certain key reforms will have to occur if democracy is to be further strengthened in Africa’s most populous country. In the final part of a series focusing on the upcoming polls, VOA’S Darren Taylor reflects Nigerians’ desires for change after the vote.
“Nigerians are afraid, but also excited, because they know that change is just around the corner,” says Emeka Chukwuka, a businessman in Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos.
“They are saying that no matter what happens, after the elections a new era will have begun.”
Obasanjo’s chosen successor is Umaru Yar’Adua, the former chemistry lecturer and governor of Katsina state, who was relatively unknown outside his home province before his candidature was announced earlier this year.
The Obasanjo factor will “hang heavy” over the polls, says Reuben Abati, the chairman of Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper group.
The president has labeled the forthcoming elections a “do or die affair”-- language that does not sit well with Abati.
“(Obasanjo) says winning in the forthcoming election is ‘a matter of life and death’ for the PDP (the ruling People’s Democratic Party). He also once boasted that he knows those who will not succeed him. What you now find is the office of the president being used to dictate to Nigerians.”
Abati is pleading for the 2007 elections to bring an end to what he terms the “godfather syndrome” in Nigerian politics.
“If you are not anointed by a godfather, you don’t stand a chance. President Obasanjo is like an overlord, a monarch; the Nigerian president is extraordinarily powerful. The process of selecting, anointing candidates for the 2007 elections has in itself also created a problem of credibility and also a problem of legitimacy,” he explains.
The secretary of the PDP, Ojo Maduekwe, acknowleges:that there are real problems (in Nigerian politics):
“There are problems of violence, there are problems of rigging, there are problems of corruption…. We are doing something to deal with those issues. And I want to say that there are decent people in Nigerian politics!”
Some of that “decency” should come to the fore after the polls, says Abati, who hopes that those newly elected will pressure the Nigerian Senate to reduce presidential powers.
Abati says as the elections approach, Nigeria is witnessing “popular resistance to the politics of patronage.”
But Prof. Rotimi Suberu, a political scientist from the University of Ibadan, says that while the “opposition may not be strong or united enough to dislodge the PDP at the national level, I think it is strong enough to resist or prevent any large-scale manipulation of the transition.”
Suberu defends the state: “A government and a president that has set up anti-corruption institutions – although they’ve been quite selective in fighting corruption; that has freed the country from its huge international debt; that has built up the country’s foreign reserves; and that has generally redeemed the country’s international image, deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt when it commits itself to holding a successful election and transition.”
He maintains that Nigeria’s democratic system is “resilient,” and that this bodes well for the country’s future. Suberu says Nigeria’s institutions have successfully resisted various threats to democracy over the past four years. As examples, he mentions the PDP’s “misguided” attempts to secure an unconstitutional third term for President Obasanjo and efforts to impose Islamic law, Sharia, in northern Nigeria.
Such “progressions,” says Suberu, make him optimistic that polling process will be “reasonably stable” and that there will be a civilian-to-civilian transition after Nigeria’s elections.
But Abati remains concerned about the election aftermath. Nigeria’s Electoral Act makes provision for judges to preside over tribunals in the event of disputes and resultant petitions. He feels that problems could arise in this respect.
“Because the Electoral Act does not give a defined limit for the hearing of petitions, you could have a situation whereby, after a particular government has been elected, the hearing of the case could go on in court for up to two, three years, before it is determined. And you have persons who are already holding positions having to step down for the man who has been declared the legitimate winner of that position, coming in, and it will cause all sorts of confusion and tension,” he warns.
Abati also says “something must be done” after the polls to ensure that women begin to play a greater role in Nigerian politics. He credits the Obasanjo administration for elevating women, but says there are still not enough women in “decision-making positions” in Nigerian society.
“Women will not play a major role in the 2007 elections because the politics of violence, the politics of exclusion, has kept them out of it.”
Dr Jibrin Ibrahim is one of many analysts encouraged by what they term the “reawakening” of Nigeria’s civil society as a result of the looming polls. A strong civil society is essential for the future, he says.
But Abati thinks the country’s civil society network has “left it too late” to exert a major influence on the outcome of the elections and to prevent widespread irregularities.
He laments what he calls the “death of the Nigerian middle class” as a factor in the polls. Abati says the middle class in the country is fond of criticizing from a distance, but on election day it is largely an “outsider.”
“One of the jokes in Nigeria is that, when an election is approaching, most members of the middle class and the upper middle class will relocate abroad and then monitor the situation on the Internet. And then after the election has been done and everything is okay, then they come back,” Abati laughs.
“One of the major challenges in the future is to turn the Nigerian middle class from being a group of non-voting analysts into a group that translates its passion for democracy into acting as agents for mobilizing the people and voting on election day,” he stresses.
According to Abati, a priority in Nigeria following the polls should be a constitutional amendment that allows for independent candidacy, away from the “mess” of having 50 political parties and their candidates competing for the presidency, as will be the case on April 14.
Ibrahim says he has confidence that the people of Nigeria will use the election process to cement their democratic rights.
“To say: ‘Well, this government is not working; we want to try another government’ and that’s what democracy is all about. There’s this clear determination by the ruling party that they must not allow Nigerians to choose the leaders they want. And people are saying, ‘Well, we are going to use these elections as a referendum to make sure that these people who disrespect citizens of Nigeria cannot continue to be in power.’ And it is by shoving aside this irresponsible type of leadership that we can begin to construct a democracy in which Nigerian citizens will begin to make political decisions for themselves.”
But away from the politicking, Lagos businessman Emeka Chukwuka says no matter who ascends to power after the polls, “their priorities should be on power provision, because that is the bedrock of development. They must try and give us power so that business will grow and poverty will be eradicated. And after power I think the next thing should be education.”