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Most Nigerians, many Africans and interested observers all over the world are watching the April / May 2003 Nigerian general elections with anxiety. This anxiety is not misplaced. The 2003 election is the country's second attempt by an incumbent civilian government at organising elections and possibly a transfer of power. The last attempt in 1983 ended in rigging, violent conflict and chaos, and paved the way for a return of brutal military rule during which human rights were ruthlessly suppressed, the media persecuted and the right to democratic political opposition 'criminalised'. Military regimes have ruled the country for twenty-nine out of its forty-three years of independence from British colonial rule since October 1960.

Beyond the fear of a possible return of military rule lies a greater fear that the elections could generate conflict so intense and violent that the country may break up along religious and ethnic lines. It is impossible to describe such a scenario except to say that it would be a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions especially for Nigerians and the West African sub-region. If the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone with populations of 3 million and 5 million respectively have combined to unsettle the sub-region over the last decade, a similar level of conflict in Nigeria with an estimated population of 120 million will bring the sub-region to its knees. This is no exaggeration. An estimated ten to twelve thousand people have died in religious and ethnic 'skirmishes' in the past 4 years of 'peace'. The 1967-70 Nigeria Vs Biafra civil war that erupted when the Igbo ethnic nationality attempted to secede following a pogrom against them triggered by political conflict, a coup and counter coup cost over a million lives making it joint fourth in all time war casualty figures behind the last two world wars and the Korean War. Nonetheless, such conflict is not completely unavoidable either now or in the future.

But why and how has Nigeria come to teeter on the brink of the abyss? And how can it pull back from it? An analysis of the 2003 elections against the background of Nigeria's political history is imperative here.

On the surface, the ongoing electoral process appears to satisfy one of the key conditions for democratic elections namely the existence of a multi-party democracy. Thirty political parties now 'officially' exist in the country and between them produced about three thousand candidates for the April 12 elections, and nineteen presidential candidates for the April 19 presidential elections.

In reality, while the existence of the parties represents a significant step towards democracy, their participation in the elections is just short of being farcical. This is mainly because twenty four of them were granted official existence by a legal victory of a coalition led by radical lawyer turned politician Gani Fawenhimi, and have had barely three months to prepare to fight a general election against three other parties which have been in power at local, state and federal levels for four years. This is further underlined by the fact that most candidates only emerged from party primaries with roughly a month to go to the elections. In addition, they have had to fight a series of administrative and financial obstacles placed in their way by the electoral commission.

Against this background, it is not surprising that with the exception of a few individuals, the most visible candidates for all levels of office are either ex army generals or officers, their civilian associates or incumbent political office holders. In a political culture where 'misappropriation' of public funds by government officials is seen as necessary to 'secure' the future of ones family and associates, only individuals, groups and their associates that have had the opportunity to 'secure' millions or maybe even billions of petro-dollars can afford to comfortably run election campaigns based largely on the purchasing power of candidates rather than any clearly defined political ideology or programmes.

'Financial thuggery' and the 'money-tisation' of politics are however not enough to secure support and potential victory even in an impoverished society. In the absence of any ideological differences or meaningful political programmes, most members of the political elite have also turned to ethnic and religious chauvinism in a desperate attempt to secure votes. As a result, fault lines have emerged along ethnic and religious lines and mainly in support of the three previously existing parties the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which is the ruling party at the national level, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) which has produced several incumbent governors in mainly Northern states, and the Alliance for Democracy (AD) which has also produced several incumbent governors from the Yoruba speaking South West of the country where it draws its main support.

Consequentially, the General Muhammad Buhari led ANPP in spite of its inclusive sounding name is now seen as the party of the largely Moslem Northern part of the country and the protector of the interests of the Hausa-Fulani-Moslem ruling elite. Although the North is more culturally and ethnically diverse than it appears to casual observers, the commonly spoken Hausa language of the majority, and the adoption of Moslem Sharia law by many State Governors in ANPP controlled states has reinforced a monolithic Hausa/Fulani – Moslem image, and attracted to the ANPP Moslem fundamentalists desperate to secure official footholds which may end up balkanising the country along religious lines. This image has been reinforced by the results of the legislative elections held on the weekend of the 12th of April, which saw the ANPP make gains in the North at the expense of the PDP.

The ruling General Olusegun Obasanjo led PDP, which in the past has postured as the secular party of the ruling elite of all ethnic nationalities and religions, has reacted to the manoeuvres of the ANPP by simultaneously trying to retain its secular image, while also appealing to the ethnic sentiments of the Yoruba speaking South West region of Obasanjo. His Vice President Abubakar Atiku, an influential Northern Moslem politician, has also tried to outflank the ANPP in the North by promising that the Presidency will be 'rotated back' to the North after Obasanjo's second term. 'Rotated back' to the north being a reference to the need to assuage southern political interests by granting Obasanjo two terms in compensation for the annulment and death in custody of MKO Abiola, the winner of the June 12 1993 elections perceived as stolen by the northern ruling elite that has dominated the country's military and political elite for decades.

The AD appears to be the loser in the widespread shameless appeal to ethnic nationalism and religious sentiment. The party has split into two factions, the dominant faction arguing for the party not to present a presidential candidate and calling for support for Obasanjo on ethnic grounds, the other faction appearing to dither on the issue. Having ceded its ethnic base to Obasanjo in order to stop the supposed greater evil of 'Northern domination' allegedly represented by the ANPP, the AD is in real danger of being eclipsed from the political stage by its apparent lack of any distinct political ideology, programme or national leadership. Again the legislative elections seem to bear this out. The AD lost seats to the PDP and was only able to retain all its national legislative seats in Lagos State out of all the six South Western states it previously dominated.

Going by the results of the legislative elections in which the ruling PDP won 181 and 60 seats out of the 360 and 109 in the House of Reps and Senate respectively, the PDP seems set to retain the presidency. However, the legislative results may serve only to crank up the desperation in the battle for the presidency and governorship positions in the 36 states - and with desperation comes violence. At present, at least half the political parties have rejected the results of the legislative elections alleging rigging and other irregularities. General Buhari has demanded a rerun of the national legislative elections in some states, and threatened to resist by force if necessary any attempts to steal the Presidency. General Obasanjo has responded by stating he is constitutionally bound to put down violence and protect lives and property. Observers and monitors appear divided on the smoothness and credibility of the elections. The Commonwealth, Catholic Church and others have reported some violence and irregularities that the electoral commission has partly agreed to and promised improvements. Others such as the leadership of the Union of Journalists claim the national legislative elections have been largely free and fair, in apparent contradiction of newspaper reports.

In order to win the presidential elections, a presidential candidate must win at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of the 774 local government areas, in addition to winning the overall majority nationwide. This is to ensure that the President has support across the country and does not represent one ethnic nationality or region. If no candidate achieves that, there will be a run-off on 26 April. However the absence of any distinct programme or ideology between most of the parties means that while the leaderships are happy to engage in national and inclusive sounding rhetoric, their supporters are engaging in more sinister rhetoric which stops just short of hate speech and incitement. The situation is further complicated by the existence of armed ethnic militias and vigilante groups, some of which may be used by desperate politicians to intimidate opposing voters, enforce irregularities or violently protest against results they disagree with.

However, and as with many countries with presidential systems of government, the legislative voting patterns do not always accurately reflect or predict those for the executive positions. This is partly because elections for executive positions are more personality driven in addition to incumbency factor, party affiliations, religion, ethnicity, other demographic considerations, and ideology or programmes where they exist. Some incumbent State governors, deputy Governors and state party leaders have also decamped to other parties and further muddied the waters. National leaderships of parties may also sway voters in the state executive positions. In the Igbo speaking largely Christian Eastern part of the country for instance the All Progressives Grand Alliance led by Oxford educated former Biafran rebel leader Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu may try to appeal to 'Biafran' sentiments to secure at least some governorship positions even though there are eight Igbo Presidential candidates out of nineteen. In the oil rich Niger Delta States, opposition candidates will also try to portray some incumbent governors as 'errand boys' of the older parties dominated by other ethnic nationalities interested only in exploitation of oil resources and not the welfare of the Niger Delta people. In some of these states, the potential for violence in the struggle for resources is alarming. In this respect, the State House of Assembly elections in May is also a cause for concern.

In the midst of all this gloom and despair, some of the parties that may have cut across the descent into bigotry may be overwhelmed by the combination of corruption and an appeal to primordial instincts. These include the National Conscience Party (NCP) with its motto of “Abolition of Poverty” and led by Gani Fawenhinmi, one of the country's leading human rights lawyers and its most imprisoned and persecuted political activist.

NCP's emphasis on the need to “abolish poverty” by reviving the collapsing economy pinpoints the precise reason why the struggle for power and control of resources may well degenerate into violence. Although there are no reliable statistics, unemployment is believed to rise dramatically every year. This is reflected in the rise in violent crime, white-collar crime, wide spread corruption, decimation of a well educated middle class and the collapse of the heath care system, public transport, public power supply, lack of housing and a rising state of insecurity. For many people, the main source of income is government related jobs and contracts. The ruling elite also has little faith in industry and secures its future through political office and contracts. The situation is so bad that Nigeria's position as the worlds 6th largest producer of oil does not insulate it from fuel scarcity and long gas station queues caused by collapsing refineries. To tackle these issues means the ruling elite must question the legitimacy of its own rule and hence the eagerness to blame it on the elite of the other ethnic nationalities or religions and by extension pose as 'defenders of the faith'; or to claim as with some Sharia leaning politicians, that “godlessness” is to blame for all the social and economic problems and that strict religious regimes will put everything right.

Not surprisingly, elections featuring such levels of desperation have led to rules being thrown out of the window. The electoral commission has officially conceded six million cases of multiple registration or fraudulent registration of voters out of a total of 61 million registered voters. This has happened mainly in party strongholds affiliated to the older three parties and suggests organised gerrymandering and pre-election rigging. In addition, publicly owned but state controlled media at the federal and state levels have been used by incumbents as personal or party propaganda outlets. Other contestants have been frozen out of the media completely with many having to make complaints to the National Broadcasting Commission and electoral commission. The use of public infrastructure and funds by incumbents to support their campaigns have also raised the stakes with opponents complaining bitterly and principled public media journalists or civil servants being persecuted. [CREDO is involved in projects addressing how the abuse of the publicly owned media and election campaign finances affect democratic rights including the right to political participation.]

In other words, the stage has been set for a showdown over the results of the presidential elections and to a lesser extent the results of the state house of assembly election in May. Ultimately, whether Nigeria descends into anarchy or not will depend mainly on the scale of victory of the supposed winners of both elections, the level of restraint of the supposed losers, and the capacity of the ruling government to draw as many of the opposition parties as possible into a government of 'national unity' designed to 'preserve the country' and the rule of the existing political elite.

But even if the elections do not produce violence on a scale that leads to the disintegration of the country, it will only be a postponement of the day of reckoning. The retention of power by the PDP, or a transfer of power to another party without a change in political direction that addresses the violation of social, economic and political rights will not solve the problems that have created the current levels of poverty, despair and desperation. Without meaningful change, the economy and social infrastructure will continue to disintegrate and sink, human rights abuses will increase as the government will sooner or later be drawn into curtailing the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and political participation in a bid to preserve itself in power. Unless any of the existing parties or an emerging one is able to rally the country around tackling underdevelopment, unemployment, the collapse of healthcare, housing and rising crime the struggle for resources and survival will become more and more reflected along primordial lines of religion and ethnic nationality leading to a rise in ethnic cleansing or fundamentalism. Having seen off naked military rule, the next task of Nigerian civil society must be to tackle the issues that are preventing the growth of genuine democracy and socio-economic development. The consequences of failure mean that in this case failure is not an option.

* Rotimi Sankore is Coordinator of CREDO for Freedom of Expression and Associated Rights an international NGO focussing on rights issues in Africa. CREDO can be reached at [email][email protected]

* This article was written before the April 19 Presidential elections.

* Please send comments on this editorial to [email protected]

* Recent editorials by Rotimi Sankore:

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