Nigeria at the polls

April 16, 2003

WITH MORE THAN 100 million people, Africa's most populous nation is a steaming caldron of ethnic rivalries, linguistic fragmentation, religious enmities and economic manipulation. Such instability has made Nigeria easy prey for successive military coups. It's amazing the country works at all.

Despite these challenges, Nigeria is embarking on a bold venture in democracy for only the second time in two decades. Voters headed to the polls Saturday for the start of three weeks of elections, beginning with the selection of a federal parliament. A presidential ballot follows this Saturday (with a possible runoff at the month's end) and the election of regional assemblies May 3 completes the process.

These are the first elections since civilian rule returned in 1999 and only the second since 1983, when a dark 15-year period of instability and military coups began.

It is a tribute to Nigeria's wide-open process that no fewer than 30 political parties have fielded candidates. President Olusegun Obasanjo alone has 18 opponents. He is a one-time military ruler who became a believer in democracy; among his challengers are three generals, including one who led the Biafra secession in the 1960s.

Nigeria's woes are aggravated by factionalism. Particularly prominent is the divide between the predominantly Muslim north, which is powerful economically and politically, and the south, which has the country's oil deposits. This schism has led to persistent squabbles over resource allocation and influence. It also is a huge issue in the presidential contest: President Obasanjo's most serious challenger is Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim who was the military head of state in 1984 and 1985.

Partial results from Saturday's parliamentary ballot showed strong support for President Obasanjo's ruling party. However, his opponents rejected the outcome, claiming "massive rigging."

Charges and countercharges are to be expected. Mr. Obasanjo has been well-motivated but has not been effective in attacking pervasive corruption, quelling localized conflicts or improving the economy. The fact that 12 of Nigeria's 30 states follow Islamic law adds to underlying tensions.

There is a danger in this unhappiness. In 1983, elections were regarded to have been so deeply flawed that a military takeover followed a few months later. Generals stayed in power for the next 15 years.

Nigerians will make their own choices. The result, though, touches Americans as well. Nigeria is a major oil supplier for this country. It can be either a bedrock of stability or a sinkhole of trouble in West Africa, where fratricides and senseless killing have infected Liberia and Sierra Leone and now threaten Ivory Coast. That's why democracy must win in Nigeria's elections.

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