Analysts call them the most significant elections in Nigerian history, and they?re scheduled to take place in a matter of weeks.  President Olusegun Obasanjo is set to hand over power to a successor, making this Nigeria?s first-ever civilian-to-civilian transition.  But, Africa?s most populous country has a long and bitter history of fraudulent elections and military dictatorships, and many analysts say the polls will not be free and fair.  In the fourth of a five-part series, VOA?S Darren Taylor examines the question of whether or not Nigerians are prepared to accept the election results.

Various international observer groups, including the European Union, rejected the 2003 polls in Nigeria, which saw President Obasanjo re-elected, as deeply flawed. The vote was characterized by ethnic and religious violence, and the EU said it failed to meet minimum democratic standards.     

?In 2003, there was significant manipulation of election results.? INEC (Nigeria?s Independent National Electoral Commission) has not, despite the pleas of observer groups, despite the advice of technical advisors, taken significant measures to change the (weak) procedures related to results tabulation and transmission, that reigned in 2003. I think we run the serious risk in 2007 of manipulation of the results between polling station level and the central level,? warned Nate van Dusen, of the IFES group, which seeks to facilitate democratic elections throughout the world.

Van Dusen visited Nigeria recently and described the outlook for free and fair elections as ?bleak.? In the run-up to the polls, political figures have been murdered and police have prevented leading opposition candidates from campaigning.  Some are also concerned the  votes may`have already been tallied in favor of the ruling People?s Democratic Party (PDP).

?Given all the abuse we?ve seen, there are two outstanding questions: Why haven?t Nigerians taken to the streets (en masse) to protest? What levels of disorganization and fraud are Nigerians willing to accept in 2007 he asked, before answering his own questions: ?The belief that elections are critical to the survival not only of Nigerian democracy, but in fact of the state in Nigeria, weighs so heavily on the minds of the Nigerian electorate that they?re willing to accept a level of fraud and disorganization that would be inconceivable even in many other African countries.?

Reuben Abati, the chairman of Nigeria?s Guardian newspapers and one of the country?s leading political commentators, said the optimistic consensus amongst certain observers in Nigeria that the people would use their votes ?to make a difference? was misplaced. Democracy in Nigeria, Abati said, had become a ?kind of blackmail? and because of this ?the Nigerian people have found themselves in the position where, oftentimes, they will take anything - because the alternative is difficult to contemplate, the alternative of military rule.?

But Abati remained convinced that Nigerian democracy, ?with all its imperfections,? still represented a ?step forward? for the Nigerian people.

?We complain about authoritarianism; we complain about civilian democracy, but I think that the Nigerian people ? if they are asked to make a choice ? they will say, ?Yes, democracy with all its problems is still better.

Nevertheless, Abati maintained that the political process ahead of the polls had been ?exclusive? because a belief among many of the country?s powerful that Nigeria?s next president should hail from northern Nigeria.

Abati warned that the ?ethnic politics of regionalism? was a ?dangerous game?. 

?The north may take power back, but there are aggrieved nationalities ? over 400 ethnic nationalities in Nigeria ? who are raising questions about their place in the Nigerian arrangement. And the emergence of the north, the power in the hands of the north, again could fuel these feelings of marginalization.?

Innocent Chukwuma, the chairman of Nigeria?s Transitional Monitoring Group (TMG), an organization of civil society groups watching the election process, said the forthcoming polls would not be credible, for a number of reasons.

?The fact that (state) governors have been intimidated into defecting from their parties to the ruling party, will have a serious impact on the credibility of elections,? he commented.

Chukwuma said the state had effectively ?taken away the role of the people in the democratic process.?

?Almost all the major agencies that will play a role in the elections depend on support from state government, to convey their materials from state headquarters to the nooks and crannies of the country. And any party that controls any state government that is able to provide these logistics for the police, for INEC, already have a head start in determining the outcome of the election,? he said, adding: ?So the plot is to ensure that before we get to the election period, the ruling party will dominate all the states, which will make it possible for the elections to be manipulated.?

Ojo Maduekwe, PDP secretary, acknowledged that there were problems ahead of the elections. But, he slammed government critics for running to ?foreign forums? to complain, instead of discussing their grievances with the Obasanjo administration.    

?We sincerely urge that the sensibilities of the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people should also be taken into consideration,? he said.

Maduekwe emphasized that the government was committed to free and fair elections. 

?We don?t like a situation where we are being dictated to as if democracy is something we do not want; we want it! We can?t be a great African state if we are not a model of democracy!? he said. 

But Chukwuma maintained that the government was not committed to transparency, and that this could lead to Nigerians rejecting the outcome of the elections. The state, he said, was ?stalling? on accrediting local groups to monitor the elections. 

Nigerian leaders were so deeply aware that the people could reject the 2007 elections, Chukwuma said, that some had already made plans to emigrate should ?things go wrong? for them. He urged the United States and the EU to cancel their visas to prevent them from leaving Nigeria, should the post-election aftermath be one of chaos.

?Their children, their relatives, are all studying abroad, or they?re all working abroad, and they (the leaders) think they can do whatever they like, because their immediate families are not living in Nigeria. But if we have a situation where they will know that no longer will the international community?give them a safe haven outside the country if they mess up the country, perhaps they will sit back and begin to take these issues seriously,? Chukwuma said.

Maduekwe disagreed with the TMG chief, saying all Nigerians had a right to travel and study abroad, and reiterated his confidence that Nigerians would accept the election results and there would be ?no reason for anyone to run away? from the country.  

Van Dusen, though, said: ?I think we?re at serious risk of election related violence in 2007?and whether or not this will be acceptable to Nigerians, we?ll have to see. But it will definitely be a significant factor in how they view the credibility of the process.?

According to Abati, no matter what happened during the polls, Nigerians must ensure that the Constitution is amended after the elections to lessen the powers of the new president.

?This is a key to Nigeria?s democratic future,? he said.