Nigeria struggles through elections

Violence, logistical flaws mar process in the oil-rich nation

April 22, 2007|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,Los Angeles Times

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Getting 65 million ballots to the far corners of Africa's most populous country in just a single night was only the beginning of the logistical and security nightmare of elections in Nigeria yesterday.

Next there was the gunbattle in the oil-rich south as militants reportedly tried to kidnap the ruling party's candidate for vice president; the truck bomb in the capital, Abuja, that rolled toward the election commission headquarters, crashed into a lamppost and failed to detonate; the voting that had to be canceled in some areas because not all parties were on the ballot; the long delays in opening up many of the 120,000 polling stations; the reports of ballot boxes stuffed and stolen; and the opposition claims of millions of missing ballots.

Ruling party presidential candidate Umaru Yar'Adua is described as low-key. The probable future president summed it all up yesterday by saying, with some understatement, "There's nothing a human being can do that is perfect."

After the Supreme Court overturned Monday the ban on one of the main presidential candidates, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the Independent National Electoral Commission had just a few days to reprint ballots carrying his name. So it went back to its South African printers, who barely met the deadline.

The ballots arrived late Friday, the night before the presidential and parliamentary vote, posing a challenge that would have flummoxed electoral authorities in almost any developed Western nation, but not the last-minute, don't-worry, make-do Nigerians, who pressed ahead when others might have balked.

In charge of it all is Maurice Iwu, who must have one of the most difficult jobs on earth as head of the much-criticized electoral commission.

"I beg Nigerians to be patient. We're meeting emergencies as best we can," he said yesterday, before voting was extended by two hours because of the delayed start. The results in the presidential race will be announced tomorrow.

The election was marred by violence, when police opened fire and killed three boys during a protest in the northern town of Daura, and by tragedy, when a plane carrying elections officials with voting materials crashed, killing 14 people.

With 25 presidential candidates, the elections mark the nation's first transfer of power from one civilian administration to another, and carry the hopes of 140 million Nigerians, many yearning for improvements in democracy, more government accountability and better lives. The vote is also seen as key to democratic development on the continent, given Nigeria's size, oil reserves and geopolitical power.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had been governed mainly by the military until 1999 elections ushered in eight years of civilian rule.

But to some people, those eight years have been a disappointment.

In 1999, Taiwo Otun and her family lived in a dank, squalid room in Ajegunle, a poor suburb north of Lagos with no running water, intermittent power and an open sewer outside her back door.

Eight years later, the unemployed 28-year-old is still there.

Voting, Otun said, had changed nothing for people. She said her family ate one meal of cassava a day, and sometimes nothing. "People suffer in this country," she said. "I'm angry. There's no food, there's no money, there's no work.

"I don't feel like voting. They will rig the election."

Robyn Dixon writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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