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Nigeria's Dangerous Elections

Jean-Christophe Servant, Abuja, Nigeria, April 16, 2003

A woman votes in Nigeria's national elections
A Lagos woman waits in line for her new voter's card, April 11, 2003 (Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP).
The first time in 42 years of Nigerian independence that one civilian government had given way to another should have been an auspicious occasion. But widespread complaints of vote-rigging, political violence that began even before the voting did, and the widespread perception that none of the main candidates have a concrete plan to rid the country of corruption and brutality have led many Nigerians to fear that no matter who wins the elections, Nigeria will lose. 

Following the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) strong showing in the April 12 parliamentary elections, incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo looked likely to keep his job in presidential balloting on April 19. Voters were also choosing state governors and legislators in Nigeria, a federation of 36 states and 120 million people.

While Obasanjo's main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, and the other Nigerian opposition candidates have rejected the results of the April 12 polls, saying they were rigged, Buhari has said he will participate in the April 19 round of voting. And in the initial phase of the voting, at least, political violence seemed to have been kept to a minimum—at least compared to previous elections in this brawling, cacophonous nation. Commonwealth and European Union observers of the national legislative elections declared them “generally peaceful,” even though at least 13 people were killed in election-related incidents.

Still, observers noted that political murders had proliferated in the days and weeks leading up to the elections, casting a pall over the process.

“Since January, not a week has gone by without a politically tinged murder,” an observer in a Western embassy noted with concern just before the elections.

As a result, tensions between Obasanjo’s PDP and the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP) of Muhammadu Buhari, the military dictator who ruled Nigeria between 1983 and 1985, had reached a point of high tension at the time of the balloting. The political tension mirrored regional and ethnic tensions. Obasanjo, an adherent of the Rosicrucian philosophy, is from the Yoruba people who dominate western Nigeria; Buhari is a Muslim from the northern Hausa people.

The March 5 murder of Marshall Harry, the national vice president of Buhari’s ANPP, held a particularly explosive potential. Harry was coordinator of the ANPP’s campaign in the oil states of southeastern Nigeria, which constitute just one of the six electoral regions but have an outsized importance given Nigeria’s status as the world’s sixth-largest producer of petroleum.

Harry, who had quit his post as vice president of the ruling PDP for the southeastern zone to join the ANPP, was one of Nigeria’s “kingpins,” as powerful men are known here. Harry’s change of parties was monumental—and quite enough to earn him redoubtable enemies in his native Rivers State. As a kingmaker in a state whose capital, Port Harcourt, is the seat of the Nigerian offices of the major oil companies, Harry brought over to the ANPP his political machine, his Christian electorate, and a vast fortune: He had pumped tens of millions of naira (hundreds of thousands of dollars) into Buhari’s campaign war chest.

Nigeria’s national press didn’t take long to link Harry’s killing with the volatile situation in the coastal states of the Niger Delta: a mixture of communal and ethnic tensions, exemplified by violent incidents like those occurring recently at Warri, touched off by arguments over the division of oil money and exploited by “mafia-style” state governors who would stop at nothing to retain their posts in the April elections.

Following the Money
High on the list of politicians accused by the press of behaving like “godfathers” is Peter Odili, the PDP governor of Rivers State. Marshall Harry was once a henchman of Odili, but had recently moved away from the ruling party. In a recent series of advertisements in the regional press, Harry accused the governor of stockpiling weapons for use in creating unrest. And just a few days before the official launch of the ANPP’s presidential campaign scheduled to take place at Port Harcourt, Harry complained of illegal arrests, intimidation, and harassment of his party workers. As he bluntly put it: “In Rivers State, and throughout Nigeria, the people who call themselves democrats are nothing but intolerant dictators.”

After Harry’s murder, as a shocked country wondered who would be the next victim of the “faceless war” of political assassination, Governor Odili did offer a reward of 25 million naira for information about the killing. President Obasanjo, for his part, strongly denounced “the disturbing wave of political killings,” while at the same time noting that several PDP members had also been shot dead and that the murders “should not be politicized.”

These gestures appeared to be in vain, as the PDP and ANPP candidates went into the elections in high dudgeon, auguring badly for what Nigerians themselves call their “democrazy.” Typical was the rhetoric of Muhammadu Buhari, the ANPP’s presidential candidate: “The federal government is using the apparatus of the state, from the police to the secret services, against its political opposition. We condemn the violence, but if things go too far, we shall be obliged to respond with the same methods.” With concern rampant about the repercussions of the invasion of Iraq on the religiously sensitive Muslim Hausa in northern cities like Kaduna and Kano—the ANPP’s electoral heartland—Buhari’s threats must not be taken lightly, even after the elections.

Broadly speaking, all across Nigeria powerful men are quick to play on the despair and frustration of a nation still waiting for some tangible benefit from the democracy that was inaugurated in 1999 after 15 years of military dictatorship. And against this backdrop, any scenario right up to the worst case can be imagined. Nigeria is a country where alliances and disagreements are less about ideology—the press here frequently complains that none of the parties has a platform—than venality. In Nigeria, where capitalism is practiced red in tooth and claw, Marshall Harry could readily have been the victim of a purely criminal settling of scores. Even after a gang of young thugs was arrested for the crime, sources in Port Harcourt said that rumors were still flying that Harry died because his business dealings had earned the enmity of competitors in the oil-sodden Rivers State. Or that members of his own party, angered by his support for a gubernatorial candidate from outside the state, had hired the gang to have Harry killed. 

“In Nigeria,” explains Yusuf Ozi Usman, a journalist at the Muslim newspaper The Daily Trust, “when a crime against a political figure occurs, every possible motive must be examined. Even the most sinister and unlikely.” The case of Bola Ige, the federal justice minister who was murdered in December 2001, provides a prime example. After the initial investigation focused on the political opposition, the police are now checking the possibility of a case of revenge within the ruling PDP.

Despite the efforts of reformers who have literally given their lives to effect some sort of positive change in Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous country has yet to exorcise the demons it has inherited from a history of corruption and coups.

With additional reporting from contributing editor Dave Clemens

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