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Nigeria democracy pins hopes on elections

Chaos causes polls to be postponed, but some say they are now being done properly.

Nigeria elections democracy 2011 4 7Enlarge
Nigerians register to vote on April 2, 2011. Later that day Nigerian officials postponed the parliamentary elections citing organizational problems. (Pius Utomi Ekpei /AFP/Getty Images)

ABUJA, Nigeria — The news seemed ominous: an election postponed after millions of voters had already cast their ballots. The vote rescheduled, and then postponed again. Tally sheets were missing and the fate of the marked ballots was unclear. Allegations of sabotage and cries of outrage came from the opposition.

Despite the chaos, this could actually be a major step forward for democracy in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

Nigeria, with a booming economy and cultural influence, sees itself as a leader on the continent and a candidate for a future permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. But its three general elections since the end of military rule in 1999 have been riddled with fraud and violence, a major embarrassment for the country and a source of mounting anger among fed-up voters.

The country’s last general election, in 2007, was a disaster — European Union observers said it was among the worst they had ever witnessed, anywhere. The current elections come at a time of upheaval on the continent, with a disputed vote turned violent in Ivory Coast and a tide of protests against longtime authoritarian regimes in North Africa.

Nigeria has a chance to set an example in democracy, but it won’t be easy.

“Nigerians are more vigilant now than they were in 2007 ... they are willing to take any measure to prevent electoral fraud.”
~Husaini Abdu, Nigeria director for ActionAid

“This election is a defining moment for Nigeria,” said Oronto Douglas, one of President Goodluck Jonathan’s top advisers.

“If we have elections that are less than credible, I don’t know what will happen. There may be violence,” said Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, a former government minister who now supports an opposition candidate.

Jonathan last year appointed a new electoral commissioner in an attempt to restore public faith in elections. Charged with the herculean task is Attahiru Jega, a respected academic with a reputation for being incorruptible. It was Jega who took the drastic step of calling off the election last Saturday when tally sheets and ballots failed to reach some of the 120,000 polling stations.

The parliamentary, presidential and gubernatorial elections have all been postponed; the voting will now be held on April 9, 16 and 26. On Thursday, about 15 percent of the parliamentary elections were pushed back even further, to April 26, because officials don't have ballots for the races.

While election observers expressed disappointment about the change of dates — especially since as many as 15 million ballots had already been cast, raising concerns about voter fatigue and the whereabouts of those ballots — they say that it is in fact a good sign that the election has been postponed. Previous elections might just have gone ahead with made-up ballots and results.

“This time they actually wanted to count the ballots,” said one Western observer in the capital, Abuja.

Jega scrapped the old, inflated voter roll — which listed Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson among its ranks — and put in place a $580 million voter registration system that relies on fingerprints and photographs. This sophisticated system was initially delayed by technical problems and other issues, and criticized for its cost, but has since been largely deemed a success, with 73 million people registered.

El-Rufai cites the case of a village in Kaduna, his home state, as an example of prior problems. An estimated 50,000 votes from Jankasa village were counted in the last election — but only 4,000 voters are officially registered according to the new biometric system.

“By the single act of fingerprint registration, Jega has eliminated the main method of vote-rigging,” said El-Rufai.