Saturday, April 21, 2007

Nigeria on knife-edge

As Nigeria goes to the polls today, the country remains on a knife-edge. After a week of violence which claimed 49 lives, polling day began with a failed attempt to blow up the electoral commission headquarters in the capital Abuja. A truck bomb loaded with fuel and gas cylinders missed its target and failed to detonate after crashing into a nearby barrier. The bombers escaped the scene. Police Inspector General Sunday Ehindero pleaded for calm and an orderly vote "I'm calling on all Nigerians to go about their civil duties ... peacefully” he said.

Nigeria goes to the polls today to elect a new president. The country has in a state of chaos since last weekend’s state elections to choose governors and state assemblies in Nigeria’s 36 states. The political opposition has rejected results from those elections that showed current President Olusegun Obasanjo's ruling party clearly winning. The world is watching how the presidential election unfolds in the hope that Nigeria will successfully transfer power between civilian presidents for the first time since gaining independence in 1960. Outgoing president Obasanjo urged aggrieved candidates and their supporters to "explore all avenues for seeking redress" rather than resorting to "jungle justice" in the aftermath of the vote.

On Tuesday, a group of 18 opposition parties threatened to boycott the national election unless the government could guarantee "transparency and fairness". But after three days of meetings they backed down and the two major opposition parties All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) and the Action Congress (AC) both announced they would contest the poll against the Government People's Democratic Party (PDP). The ANPP’s candidate is Muhammadu Buhari a former military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s. The AC is running vice president Atiku Abubakar who obtained a Supreme Court ruling on Monday to allow him to contest.

The PMP candidate and favourite to win the election is Umaru Yar'Adua. The 55 year old Yar’Adua has been the governor of the northern state of Katsina since 1999. He was mostly unknown prior to getting the party nomination in December last year. Most observers count his success down to the support of President Obasanjo. While critics call him a puppet of Obasanjo selected to prevent investigations into the misuse of billions of dollars of oil revenues, his supporters point to his spotless record on the important matter of corruption. Unlike Obasanjo who was a Christian, Yar’Adua is a Muslim. Currently relations are good between the two major religious groups in Nigeria

Whoever wins the election will have a massive task ahead of him. Nigeria is a country of 140,000 million people belonging to 250 ethnic groups with over 500 languages. Despite Nigeria’s vast oil reserves, which accounts for 95 percent of government revenues, the country is desperately poor due to endemic corruption. Most oil is found in the Niger Delta which is the site of an environmental catastrophe and a long running independence movement. But Nigeria remains a powerful player in West African and pan-African politics with the largest population and one of the largest armed forces.

Nigeria has long has an important history with the country home to a number of sophisticated and influential societies such as Borno, Katsina, Ife and the Kingdom of Benin. Its rich coastal region attracted the European explorers and the coastal enclave of Lagos became a British colony in 1861. By the end of the 19th century Britain began an aggressive military expansion and declared a protectorate over northern Nigeria in 1900. It merged northern and southern Nigeria in 1914 and created a legislative council with limited powers. Eventually the council gained more and more powers, becoming self-governing in 1954 and fully independent in 1960.

Britain gave Nigeria the legacy of a federal government due to conflicting demands from the country’s many tribal regions. The Tiv people launched a rebellion in 1964 but were quickly quelled. In 1967 civil war erupted in the eastern province of Biafra which proclaimed its independence from Nigeria. The central government launched a blockade of Biafra and eventually won the war. But the cost was high; there were a million military casualties and countless more who died in Biafra from famine.

Civilian government didn’t last long in Nigeria. The army first launched a coup in 1966. They kept their rule for most of the next 30 years. There was a brief hiatus in 1976 when Murtala Ramat Muhammed was assassinated. His death ushered in a short-lived elected government of the Second Republic. But the euphoria and optimism of a civilian government was short-lived. Because of religious extremism, corruption and economic difficulties (low world petroleum prices), it was deposed by another military coup in 1983.

During the 1990s Nigeria attracted a lot of criticism from the West due to its corruption, lack of democracy and poor human rights record. The chance for change finally came when military ruler General Sani Abacha unexpectedly died in 1998. His regime had enforced its rule through the arrest, imprisonment and execution of dissenters, press censorship and the development of a police state. Abacha was not mourned. A transitional government paved the way for free elections which were held the following year.

Former military leader Olusegun Obasanjo, who was jailed by Abacha for plotting a coup, won that election with 63% of the vote. Nigeria has seen renewed optimism under his leadership. He suspended all contracts made under the old administration and sacked many of Abacha’s lackeys in the armed forces and government departments. His term was helped by the rise in world oil prices. Obasanjo comfortably retained office in a 2003 election.

But Obasanjo was not without his critics. Despite his Christianity, he owed his political support to the Muslim north. Obasanjo showed his gratitude by allowing the northern states to introduce Sharia Law. Obasanjo stated that "sharia is not a new thing and it's not a thing to be afraid of". Nevertheless Nigeria received international condemnation in 2002 after an Islamic court upheld a sentence of death by stoning for a woman accused of adultery.

Umaru Yar’Adua will have to defend many more headlines like that if he becomes Nigeria’s first civilian Muslim president.

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