Law and Order

What chance for democracy in Nigeria?

Can Nigeria, the so-called “giant of Africa”, live up to its claim of being the biggest democracy in the black world? Not if its latest state governorship election is anything to go by, argue some in Africa’s most populous nation.

The re-run of elections for the post of governor in southwest Ekiti state were seen as a test of whether Nigeria’s electoral system has improved since flawed federal and state polls in 2007.

But for the opposition, it turned out to be as much of a charade as all the other re-runs in states where the 2007 results were nullified, all of them won by President Umaru Yar’Adua’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and all mired in controversy.

The official results showed the PDP candidate in Ekiti winning by a narrow 4,000-vote margin. The Action Congress opposition party has vowed to challenge the results in court. The re-run had to be postponed in two of more than 60 wards because of violence as frustrated voters protested against the alleged falsification of results.

The resident electoral commissioner Ayoka Adebayo at one point quit and went into hiding. “(This election) was supposed to be the election that will enhance the image of INEC (election commission), electoral process in our dear country Nigeria and the whole black race,” she wrote in a resignation letter published by Nigerian newspapers.

“Unfortunately, the circumstances changed in the middle of the process; therefore my conscience as a Christian cannot allow me to further participate,” she said, a few days before being persuaded to return to her post.

Residents spoke of voter intimidation, while election monitors and journalists complained they were manhandled by party thugs. Soldiers were deployed to assist 10,000 additional police officers already meant to be ensuring security.

The southwest is Nigeria’s most politically volatile region. Electoral violence in the area in the 1960s and in 1983 contributed to the collapse of the first and second republics. Analysts say the Ekiti re-run is a sign of what could happen in 2011 when Nigeria holds its next round of general elections.

Yar’Adua, who came to power two years ago pledging to reform the electoral system, has sent six bills designed to improve the process to the national assembly. But it will take months to pass them into law. Critics say reforms are not enough – attitudinal change is also needed in a system which sees elections as a “do-or-die affair”, to quote former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

Time is fast running out if Nigeria is to avoid a repeat of the chaotic experience of two years ago. If South Africa and neighbouring Ghana can successfully hold national polls, why can’t Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer and second biggest economy? Or is it, as some local commentators put it, “a giant with clay feet”?

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