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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.

Joe Clark, a former Canadian prime minister and a co-leader of the National Democratic Institute’s election observing mission, said he was initially skeptical about this high-tech, expensive method of voter registration. But he admits that it has been a success, and an example of Nigerian innovation and dynamism.

Nigeria has the resources and it has the skills to do things that other countries are too small to do,” said Clark. “If the system works here, it could be a model for the developing world.”

However, there are still concerns about the ballots already cast and the fact the some people have already seen what the ballots look like, potentially spurring forgeries. There are also concerns that vote riggers may turn in greater numbers to other more blunt methods of fraud, such as snatching ballot boxes.

Nigeria’s unusual election system requires voters to register at their local polling stations between 8 a.m. and noon, and then hang around to vote in the afternoon — a method of preventing voting at multiple polls, since no car traffic is allowed on election day. At the end of the day, results are publicly posted at the polling station.

Many Nigerians are deeply suspicious about the election being rescheduled twice. Hussaini Abdu, Nigeria director for ActionAid, the anti-poverty agency, said that he suspected sabotage behind the late arrival of the tally sheets that caused the postponement. He is concerned that there could be violence if the election is less than free and fair.

“Nigerians are more vigilant now than they were in 2007,” Abdu said. “So there could be more violence — they are willing to take any measure to prevent electoral fraud. And they don’t believe in the courts, so they are willing to take measures into their own hands.”

Jonathan, the former vice president, took over from President Umaru Yar’Adua during his prolonged illness and formally became president after his death last May. Jonathan said this week that he backed Jega’s decision to reschedule the election.

“What happened is another demonstration that the country and the electoral body is totally committed to ensuring that they conduct credible elections,” he told reporters during an event in Abuja.

Jonathan has previously said that he will not stand in the next presidential election, and his advisers say that he considers it part of his legacy to preside over credible elections.

Ken Wiwa, a former activist who now advises Jonathan on international affairs, said that Nigeria’s economic strength gives the country leverage in Africa.

“We have the economic muscle and the population to have a preponderant influence on our neighbors,” Wiwa said. “I think we have emerged from a few years when Nigeria was a pariah in the international community, and Nigeria is just recovering now.”

Many Nigerians were stung when U.S. President Barack Obama did not visit the country in 2009, instead choosing to stop in neighboring Ghana, an implicit reward for Ghanaians after peaceful elections in which the president relinquished power despite winning 49 percent of the vote.

“In Nigeria we have to be honest with ourselves,” Wiwa said. “We have to take ourselves seriously before anyone else will.”