Nigerian presidential poll marred by Florida-style irregularities

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President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria was returned to a second term in office as a result of the elections held on April 19, amid loud complaints of foul play by the opposition and serious reservations of international and local monitors. The official results, announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), were that Obasanjo had met the dual requirement for victory of winning an overall majority of votes cast and of securing one quarter of the votes in 24 of the country’s 36 states. The results, from more than 95 percent of districts, gave Obasanjo 24.1 million votes, or 61.8 percent of all votes cast, in contrast to 32 percent for Muhammadu Buhari, his main rival,who, like him, is a former military dictator.

The international media and some local newspapers also strongly criticised what they described as widespread vote-rigging, with one Nigerian report comparing the irregularities in the states affected with those in the state of Florida (US) in the presidential election that George W. Bush ‘won’ to get the American presidency. In Florida governor Jeb Bush was accused of committing similar malpractices to get his brother elected. This report, however, stopped short of pointing out the similarities between the two men (both are, for instance, “born-again” Christians) and the close cooperation between their administrations.

It was not a great surprise that Buhari and his party rejected the results as soon as they were announced on April 22 by the INEC, and Obasanjo hailed them as a vindication of Nigeria’s democratic rule. The All-Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), which is also the country’s main opposition party, said that the election had been fraudulent “on a scale that has never been witnessed in the history of criminality in Nigeria”. The ANPP also threatened to take both legal action and “mass action” to overturn the results. In his victory speech, Obasanjo said that the people had voted for “one united and harmonious” country, and that Nigeria had “come of age” as a democracy. So he refused to look into any of the complaints of irregularities, or order an investigation.

On April 25, however, he appeared to plead that cultural differences should be taken into account when judging elections in different countries; he also accused the European Union monitors of failing to understand African culture. “The view that I hold is that whereas democracy must have certain standards that are common, the cultural milieu of the place where your democracy is practised must be borne in mind,” Obasanjo said at a news-conference limited to Nigerian reporters.

Obasanjo singled out the EU monitors because they were the most critical of the four international teams of observers, two of whom were groups from the US and one from the Commonwealth. The EU, which deployed monitors in 31 of the 36 states, said that ballot-rigging and violence fatally damaged the credibility of the elections in six states and undermined the integrity of the polls in six others. The EU monitors also reported that the INEC itself stuffed ballot-boxes. The Common-wealth group said that voting had gone smoothly in most states, although certain irregularities had occurred in a few, adding, however, that they did not affect the nature of the poll as a whole. “A largely successful effort was made to enable people to vote freely,” the group concluded. The two American teams (the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute) reported “intimidation, procedural errors, theft and fraud” in several states, but both were at pains to add that it was too early to judge. In fact all four teams of monitors fell short of saying that the irregularities and fraud they witnessed (or became aware of) rendered the poll illegal or invalid: perhaps they believed that Obasanjo really did need to cheat to win.

Of the two candidates, Obasanjo, the “born-again” Christian from the south, is certainly preferred by the West and many Commonwealth countries to Buhari, who is a Muslim from the north with the reputation of being in favour of the introduction of Shari’ah law in some northern states. The US government certainly regards Obasanjo as one of its most important allies in Africa, and gives Nigeria substantial military assistance and development aid accordingly. Nigeria is also the fifth largest source of oil for the US. It is not, therefore, surprising that the US government, which has ostensibly resorted to war to “bring democracy to Iraq”, has not even been willing to advise Obasanjo to listen to the opposition’s complaints and order an investigation, let alone call new elections. Howard Jeter, the US ambassador to Nigeria, for instance, insisted to reporters that it was too early to judge the election results.

President Bush himself is, like Obasanjo, accused of electoral fraud, without which he could not have defeated Al Gore, his opponent in the last US presidential elections. His brother Jeb in particular is suspected of having stuffed ballot-boxes in the state of Florida. The Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper, commented on the parallels between the American and Nigerian electoral irregularities. A report in that paper on April 23 read in part: “The outright…rigging…in the area …is either nightmarish or another Florida in downtown Nigeria…remember the [American presidential] election saga.”

The failure of the foreign election-observers and Western, as well as African, governments to express any reservations about the legality of the election and its result has been justified on the grounds that to do so would be to aggravate the violence in a country that is already suffering religious and tribal unrest. As one British magazine put it, “armed robbery is rife, and over 10,000 have died in communal violence since 1999, as Christians have fought Muslims in the north, Yorubas and Hausas have burned eachothers’ shops in Lagos, and the Niger delta’s tribes have fought for control of local government.” Since Obasanjo first became president (as the military’s candidate) in 1999, the continuing violence means that he has failed to tackle one of Nigeria’s most serious problems. So the silence over the poll-rigging, so as not to aggravate this violence, is misguided: it allows the very man who has failed to tackle the violence to remain in power. And violence is not the only problem facing Nigeria that Obasanjo has failed to tackle since coming into power four years ago.

Corruption is certainly another of the problems that the president has failed to address. Since 1999 not a single senior politician or other official has been convicted (or even accused) of corruption. And although Nigeria is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of oil, most Nigerians live in poverty; motorists are forced to get petrol from the black market at exorbitant prices. And although the president has managed to purge the army of his opponents, he has not prevented army officers from committing human-rights offences on the same scale as before.

Clearly Obasanjo is not qualified to rule for four more years (he is required to step down after serving his second term in office). But Buhari is not that much better, if at all, as a candidate for his country’s presidency. The Nigerian people deserve some sympathy for having had to choose between two former military dictators.

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