Nigeria tries to improve its elections


A Nigerian casts his vote at a polling station in Otueke during parliamentary polls on April 9, 2011.


Emmanuel Wole

LAGOS, Nigeria – The women in the voting line were taking no chances. They saw a man on a motorbike hanging around the back of the polling station and demanded that he move, in case he could see their ballots or somehow snatch the ballot box.

“He cannot stay there!” one woman shouted. “He must move!” Soon a crowd of voters was protesting loudly, shouting at a police officer guarding the station. The police called for backup, and within minutes a truckload of police officers with automatic rifles had arrived.

The man left quickly, and the situation was defused. But the incident highlighted the tensions among Nigerians who have been rattled by violence during the campaign. Nigerians are also fed up with the rampant fraud of previous elections and determined to have a free and fair vote.

Despite violence in which 100 people were killed before the election, the actual voting on Saturday was largely peaceful and well-organized and the voters were able to inflict losses on the ruling People’s Democratic Party, in power since the end of military rule 12 years ago.

Despite two postponements last week due to logistical problems, observers described the voting as a positive start to a month of elections. Nigerians will choose a president on April 16 and then vote for their governors on April 26. The elections are expected to be far more competitive than in previous years.

“Since 1999, no election has been as good as this,” said Godson Oledibe, a Pentecostal clergy member voting in Lagos. “Everybody is tired of the old system and wants it to be better.”

Project 2011 Swift Count, a joint election observer project involving Muslim, Christian and secular groups, said Sunday that the election was “not perfect” but it “provided a meaningful opportunity for Nigerians to exercise their right to vote.”

The group concluded: “Despite the bombings and the delays in the elections, Nigerians who went to the polls did so enthusiastically.”

Although Saturday’s vote under the supervision of widely respected elections commissioner Attahiru Jega was far more credible than previous elections, the day was not free from violence despite tight security around the country. Security at many polling stations was beefed up following a bomb attack on an electoral office in Suleja, near the capital Abuja, that killed 13 people and injured dozens of others on the eve of the election.

On election day, explosions in the city of Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state, killed at least three people, and a hotel was set on fire. Elsewhere in Borno state, a politician was shot and killed by gunmen. There were reports of violence and ballot box snatching in the restive Niger Delta.

The death toll from election-related violence now stands at about 100 people.

Damian Ugwu, executive director of the Social Justice and Advocacy Initiative, a Nigerian human rights group, said the violence in this election was worse than in the 2007 general elections, which were notoriously blighted by widespread fraud and vote rigging.

Ugwu said this might be partly due to a tighter voter registration process that has forced corrupt politicians to look for more violent methods of influencing the election.

“The only way to get money is to grab political power. And there is a lot of impunity — the chances of being caught are very slim,” he said. “Personally I think the president is sincere about having a transparent election, but there are some things he can’t do anything about.”

Low turnout was a problem at many polling stations, in some instances due to voters registering in the areas where they work instead of where they live, making it impossible for them to travel to vote at their workplaces on election day, when the entire country is shut down — cars banned, borders closed, flights grounded — in an attempt to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots.

For example, at one polling station in the commercial area of Victoria Island in Lagos, 1,065 people had registered but only 225 people showed up on election day. Turnout is expected to be higher for the presidential election this Saturday, April 16.

Early results from the April 9 vote reported in Lagos newspapers showed several high profile People's Democratic Party candidates losing their seats to the opposition.

Lagos, where polling stations were largely calm and orderly, voters said they expect election results to more closely reflect the will of the people than in previous elections.

“People are starting to realize the power that they have. They don’t have to endure bad leadership,” said Aramide Ogbonna, a banker lining up to vote in the Ikoyi area of Lagos.

“We all want this country to move forward. We are tired of being stuck," she said. "This country has so much potential.”