The elections in Nigeria, scheduled to begin on April 14, are considered by almost everyone concerned to be the most important event in the country?s history since its independence from Britain in 1960. Analysts say the polls will either strengthen democracy in Africa?s most populous country, or plunge Nigeria into chaos. Nigeria has been ruled by military dictators since the end of colonialism. But these elections are set to result in Olusegun Obasanjo, who has been president since 1999, handing power over to a successor. This?ll be the first time in Nigeria that civilian administrations will have changed through the ballot box. In this first of a five-part series, VOA?S Darren Taylor examines the context in which the Nigerian elections are set to occur.   

International election monitor, Nate van Dusen, says the 2003 elections in Nigeria were ?deeply chaotic? ... Some voters were left so confused that they didn?t know who they were voting for. Van Dusen believes the 2007 process will see more of the same ?irregularities.? For example, he says there?s a ?real risk? that there?ll be candidates on the ballots who are not eligible to run for president. Also, many Nigerian poll workers haven?t been trained.  He says, "This means that you will have around half-a-million ad hoc staff, in 120 thousand polling stations throughout Nigeria who really have had no formal training in how to do their jobs.?

Candidates of fifty political parties are up for election. Analysts agree that the next president of Nigeria will either be Obasanjo?s chosen successor, Umaru Yar?Adua of the ruling People?s Democratic Party, the PDP, or Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. But the analysts say the campaigning so far has been anything but free and fair. Nigeria?s leading political commentator, Reuben Abati, says the police have refused to allow a popular candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, to hold rallies.  He says, ?And what was the reason that was given by the police? That the crowd that would follow the rally could be so large that that could lead to a security breach. And the question that is asked is that, why is that an issue in relation to a candidate of a rival party? If he were a candidate of the ruling party, would that step have been taken? After all, the police never denies the PDP a permit.?

But social activist Jibrin Ibrahim says Nigerians will not allow the authorities to wrest their democratic rights away from them.  He says, "We?ve had enough. And this links to the issue raised about the development crisis in the country, and the real issue is rising poverty. And the great gap that?s growing between the government of Nigeria and the people of Nigeria. The government tells us every day that the reform is working, that the economy is growing. But nobody sees that!?

Nigeria?s past is littered with fraudulent elections. Government spokesman, Ojo Maduekwe, admits that ?there are problems? this time around again.  He says, ?Not everything is perfect ? and the PDP has been working hard! We are going all over the place campaigning, at a time when the opposition is not working; it?s sleeping.?

Maduekwe denies that the government has engineered the elections to fail, as a pretext to allow Obasanjo?s rule to continue. But Abati says Nigeria?s Independent National Electoral Commission ? INEC ? is ?in the pockets? of the state. This, he maintains, will ensure that the election results won?t be credible.   He says,"I?m not too sure that there are many Nigerians who believe that INEC is an unbiased umpire ?The chairman of INEC is a card-carrying member of the ruling political party. Members of the commission of INEC are appointees of the president. The question is, how can we guarantee the neutrality of these persons if they are members of the ruling party

But Maduekwe says the Obasanjo government is committed to democracy, and that it isn?t interfering with the commission?s work.He says, ?We think that the electoral process should be kept much simpler than it is. We don?t agree with INEC all the time. But there?s this feeling that INEC is a department of PDP. And we are being made to pay for our victory! Nobody?s going to make us guilty of our victory ? whether our victory in 2003 or the victory we?re going to have in 2007!?

But Ibrahim says the government is over-confident ? He says even if the elections are rigged in favor of the ruling party, the PDP should realize that Nigerians are no longer willing to surrender the democratic gains made in recent years.