Polarized Nigeria

April 28, 2003

NIGERIA IS LIKELY to be more contentious and divided than ever as a result of recent presidential and parliamentary elections that were marred by widespread fraud.

This is particularly worrisome for Americans because Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, and it supplies huge amounts of oil for the U.S. market.

Nigeria's tainted elections have produced heightened polarization and animosity between the Christian-dominated south and the predominantly Islamic north. West Africa, which already has had its share of troubles and bloodshed, does not need any more instability.

In his re-election campaign, President Olusegun Obasanjo carried the south and southwest, where many polling irregularities were reported. His People's Democratic Party also grabbed 27 of the 36 state governorships. Muhammadu Buhari, the main Islamic candidate, captured the northern states but ran poorly elsewhere. Buhari supporters feel cheated.

"You can feel the anger in the mosques. The imams and the worshippers all see Obasanjo's victory as a robbery," reported one campaigner from the north.

Indeed, many results defy credibility. The U.S.-based International Republican Institute, an observer group, cited the case of one state where polling stations gave 100 percent of their votes to a single party.

In Nigeria, no civilian government has successfully handed over power to another. The recent elections were a test that produced a winner but no long-term certainty. Instead, the irregularities were serious enough to give the fragile democracy a bad name. Tampering only solidified Nigeria's reputation as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

During his first term, President Obasanjo forged a reputation as a well-meaning but ineffectual president. Confronted now with explosive geographical and religious divisions, Mr. Obasanjo must pursue policies of healing, bridge-building and transparency. Otherwise, prospects for a democratic Nigeria will look dim and the military may be tempted to take over, as it has so many times before.

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