A victory of sorts

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

President Olusegun Obasanjo of the People's Democratic Party after casting his vote in the April 19 presidential election in his home town of Abeokuta. - BEN CURTIS/AP

President Olusegun Obasanjo of the People's Democratic Party after casting his vote in the April 19 presidential election in his home town of Abeokuta. - BEN CURTIS/AP

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo wins a second term in office in an election marked by allegations of electoral malpractices.

ELECTIONS have invariably been raucous events in Nigeria ever since the country got its independence from Britain in 1960. Electoral irregularities, real as well as imagined, have contributed to the downfall of civilian governments and facilitated coups by ambitious Army officers. In fact, the military has been in power most of the time in independent Nigeria.

Muhammadu Buhari, who was the main challenger to the incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo in the presidential election held on April 19, was himself responsible for the overthrow of a civilian government in 1983. Buhari, a retired General, had then seized power from Shehu Shagari, the civilian President, alleging that the elections conducted by the civilian administration were not free and fair. Ominously, he is making the allegations again.

Obasanjo, on the other hand, is an Army man who once voluntarily gave up power to a civilian government. The military had first taken power in 1965 and ruled without interruption until 1979. Obasanjo, who first assumed the presidency in 1976 after the assassination of the charismatic Gen. Murtala Muhammed, gracefully stepped down from office in 1979 when a civilian government under Shagari was elected.

Interestingly, two other candidates in the fray for the presidency were also former Army officers. Emeka Ojukwu, the controversial General who precipitated a civil war in the late 1960s in his bid to carve out an independent state of Biafra, came a distant third in the race. The fourth military man in the race was Ike Nwachukwu, who played an important role in the military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha. The fact that many of the influential personalities in Nigerian politics have a military background shows that military men still call the shots in the formally democratic set-up.

Also playing an important role, though from behind the scenes, is another former military strongman - Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, who ousted Gen. Buhari from power in 1985. There is no love lost between the two, though both of them hail from the north dominated by the mainly Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic group. Buhari was an authoritarian ruler who tried to instil discipline in the Nigerian people. Many civilian politicians were incarcerated during his short tenure as head of state. Buhari was also known for his austere and non-corrupt ways.

Babangida, on the other hand, is reputed to be one of the richest men on the African continent. His support is said to have been crucial for Obasanjo's latest victory. The Muslim elite of the north were initially suspicious of Obasanjo, a born-again Christian from the Yoruba belt in the southwest. According to reports in the Nigerian media, Babangida loosened his purse strings for candidates of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). He is said to be planning to run for the presidency after Obasanjo's second and last term as President expires in four years' time. Political compulsions will make it imperative that the presidency goes to a Muslim representing the Hausa-Fulani elite from the north next time.

OBASANJO scored a landslide victory, polling around 62 per cent of the valid votes. Buhari, of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP), won 32 per cent. The PDP also swept the parliamentary elections held on April 12. The elections were supervised by the independent National Electoral Commission. There were international observers representing various organisations including the European Union (E.U.) and the Commonwealth.

After the first round of elections (to Parliament), the major Opposition parties alleged foul play. However, they did not boycott the presidential poll. Immediately after the second round of elections (to the presidency), there were more vociferous protests from the Opposition. Initial results made it clear that the President would be re-elected by a huge margin. Obasanjo polled twice as many votes as Buhari. Many election observers noted that in the Niger Delta area and in States where the PDP was in power, the polling percentage was very high. Out of the 24 million votes that Obasanjo won, 6.5 million were from the delta region and 2.5 million from the southeastern States. In one State, Ebonya, an incredible 94.6 per cent of the electorate cast its votes.

The E.U. observer group said in its report that ballot rigging and violence made the outcome "fatally flawed" and that it had observed instances of electoral fraud in 13 of the 36 States. Two American observer groups also made critical remarks about the conduct of the polls.

The Commonwealth observer group, however, was of the view that the election process was generally fair and free. Certification by international observer groups is important these days as the developing countries have to meet the so-called norms of "good governance" to qualify for essential debt relief, aid and trade agreements.

The Opposition has alleged that the Obasanjo government used the security forces for ballot rigging. Owing to the ethnic violence that has been prevalent for many years in parts of the delta region, the security forces have a big presence there.

Clashes between the two dominant ethnic groups in the region, the Ijaws and the Itsekeri, had become so intense that the oil companies operating there had to stop work for a couple of weeks, leading to a 40 per cent cut in Nigeria's oil production. Nigeria is the world's sixth largest producer of oil. The United States imports 10 per cent of its oil requirements from Nigeria. American companies such as Exxon, Mobil and Halliburton have made big investments in oilfields off the Nigerian coast. Most of Nigeria's oil comes from the impoverished delta region. Not surprisingly, Nigeria is among the biggest recipients of American aid on the African continent. The Nigerian Army gets training from the U.S.

BUHARI has characterised the elections as "the most fraudulent" since independence. Addressing the media a day after the results were announced, Buhari took a tough and uncompromising stand and refused to congratulate the winner. The retired General said that the elections were a "clear case of a state-organised rape of democracy". He demanded that Obasanjo step down and the Electoral Commission be disbanded before May 29. Otherwise, he threatened, there would be nationwide "mass action" and also legal action against the election results. Almost all the Opposition parties have supported Buhari's stand.

President Obasanjo, however, has refuted the claims of the Opposition. In a nationally broadcast speech after the election results were announced, he described the vote as "peaceful, free and transparent". He said that the people had voted for a harmonious and united Nigeria.

His supporters said that even if there were shortcomings in the election process, Obasanjo was the frontrunner. Senior government officials have threatened to take tough action against Opposition leaders if they organised mass protests. "The presidential election result is a true reflection of the will of the Nigerian electorate," said Abel Guobadia, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission.

Obasanjo's first term in office, beginning May 1999, was a turbulent one. Ethnic and religious divisions widened in the last four years. Since 1999, over 10,000 Nigerians have been victims of violence; many of them were killed by the armed forces deployed by the government to maintain law and order in sensitive areas. Universities did not function for months. The lecturers are locked in a pay dispute with the government.

Obasanjo came to power promising to solve the nation's endemic problems of corruption and poverty. But corruption seems to have only increased. Some Nigerian legislators allegedly demanded bribes to pass an anti-corruption law. None of the big fish involved in corrupt practices have been jailed. Much of the money squirrelled away by the late military dictator, Sani Abacha, in Swiss banks, has not been returned. (The Abacha family had admitted to having billions of dollars in secret bank accounts.) The government ran up a hefty deficit and failed to service the country's external debts. When he first assumed office, Obasanjo promised a 7 per cent annual rate of growth. But the Nigerian economy actually shrank last year.

Another serious problem that has the potential to inflict long-term damage to the country also cropped up during Obasanjo's first term. Some northern politicians tried to gain political mileage by introducing the Sharia law, which incorporates punishments such as flogging, amputation and stoning. In January 2000, Zamfara became the first State to introduce the Islamic law. This infuriated the Christian population, which is concentrated mostly in the east and west of the country. But the move was a vote-getter in the northern States. An ardent proponent of an even tougher interpretation of the Sharia law won the Governor's post in Kano State, defeating the candidate of the ruling party. At present 12 States in the north have adopted the Sharia law. The subsequent religious polarisation, pitting Muslims against Christians, led to serious riots in State capital cities such as Kaduna and Kano.

There are many challenges ahead for Obasanjo. The most important one is to convince his people and the international community about the credibility of his re-election. He will have to give priority to poverty alleviation in a country where 66 per cent of the population lives on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. According to available statistics, the standard of living in Nigeria has actually gone down since the country gained independence. The per capita income has fallen from $1,000 a year in 1980 to less than $300.

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