Violence mars Nigeria's presidential election

Tens of millions vote amid claims of rigging

April 20, 2003|By Davan Maharaj | Davan Maharaj,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

UKE, Nigeria - Militia groups threatened to disrupt a nationwide election yesterday, and opposition parties felt obliged to warn the ruling party of President Olusegun Obasanjo against rigging the vote.

But despite the specter of violence and fears of electoral fraud, tens of millions of Nigerians turned out for this West African nation's first civilian-run balloting for president in 20 years. Although there were reports that six people were shot to death by soldiers in the oil-producing Niger Delta, accounts from across the country - which is roughly twice the size of California - suggested that the voting at about 120,000 polling places was largely peaceful.

It remains to be seen whether the vote was devoid of fraud - and whether the losing candidates will accept the results. That will probably become clear tomorrow, when most of the ballots should be counted.

By late yesterday, however, many international observers were chalking up the election as a victory for Nigerian democracy.

"This is democracy in progress, a thing that's moving along," said Derrick Marco, the head of a group of South Africans monitoring the voting.

"Nigeria's Date With Destiny," read a front-page editorial in the newspaper This Day, which noted that the last civilian-run election, in 1983, was followed a few months later by a military takeover.

"Now all hands must be on deck to make sure that this sad history must not repeat itself," the newspaper wrote. "We all have a stake in ensuring that democracy takes root and that Nigeria does not relapse to the odious past."

Nigerians' latest experiment with democracy began four years ago, when Obasanjo, a former military head of state, won the presidency in a poll supervised by the military. His election ended 15 years of military rule.

There was widespread agreement that yesterday's election, which also chose governors for Nigeria's 36 states, was more effectively managed than voting a week earlier to select new national legislators. Then, ballots were delivered late to polling places or not at all, ballot boxes were missing, and chaos reigned in many constituencies.

Yesterday, the Independent National Electoral Commission reported that it had honored its pledge to do better. In some places, voters began casting their ballots at 7:30 a.m., half an hour before the polls were scheduled to open.

In many states, Obasanjo, a southern Christian, faced a tough challenge from retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, also a former military head of state, who commands widespread support in the nation's mainly Muslim north. Buhari is a staunch defender of Sharia, or Islamic law, which has been adopted by 12 northern states.

But Obasanjo was widely favored to beat Buhari and 18 other challengers. His ruling People's Democratic Party, or PDP, which made major gains in the parliamentary balloting, was expected to oust several incumbent governors from rival parties.

Analysts say candidates for office here compete so energetically mainly because the payouts can be so handsome.

For the same reason, the human rights group said, many Nigerian politicians hire small armed forces, or "political thugs," to intimidate or even eliminate opponents.

Party officials have accused the ruling party of massive fraud in the parliamentary election. The PDP has denied the charges, but some observers say that in the next two weeks, the PDP and other winners are likely to be called before election tribunals to explain some victories.

After last week's vote, Buhari and other opposition candidates threatened "mass action" - usually interpreted here as a call for large-scale, violent demonstrations - if yesterday's vote turned out to be rigged.

Davan Maharaj writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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