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19 February 2011

Democratic elections in Africa’s most populous nation would be problematic even without the violence and alleged fraud that has marred Nigeria’s previous polls: registering the 70 million or so eligible voters ahead of April’s elections is a feat in itself in a country with poor transport, up to 250 native dialects and an intermittent power supply.

But it’s particularly important that Nigeria gets it right this time around. The last poll – in 2007 – was widely considered to be the most corrupt in Nigeria’s democratic history, with blatant vote-rigging condemned by international observers. Since then, tensions between the Muslim North and the mainly Christian South have erupted into bloodshed. Deadly riots in the city of Jos in 2008 and 2010 left hundreds dead. Now Nigerians are being asked to choose between the Christian incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, the Muslim veteran opposition leader and ex military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, and the country’s former anti-corruption chief, Nuhu Ribadu.

“Should there be an attempt to rig the elections massively, the frustrated response of Nigerians might be violent,” says Dr Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development. It’s widely feared that if Northern Nigerians feel their votes don’t count this time their resentment will erupt into further, more serious clashes that could put the country’s future in doubt. The newly formed Independent National Election Commission (INEC) has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an electronic voter registration system to try and restore confidence in the democratic process, but it has been fraught with technical problems, leading to long queues of people waiting for their chance to register. “A lot of people were disenfranchised in the large cities of Lagos, Abuja, Kano and others because there were insufficient machines to cope with the crowds within the three weeks of registration allowed,” Dr Ibrahim adds.

Those who’ve managed to register have been issued with a new ID card containing electronic details of their fingerprints, but they will only be identified by their name and photograph on polling day – the same forms of identification required in 2007′s ill-fated election. Many Nigerians are already feeling disillusioned before they’ve even had a chance to cast their vote.

“There has been a growing sense that Nigeria has a last chance to hold free and fair elections, to allow the public a real voice before division and inequality make the whole equation unviable,” says Olly Owen, doctoral researcher at St Cross College, Oxford, based in Abuja. President Jonathan may have managed to calm separatist tensions in his home Niger Delta region but he has little support in the North. “Poor turnouts at campaign rallies already indicate that the president may have difficulty mobilising votes in that region. Trying to botch the result there could provoke high tempers.”

If the frustration of Nigerians can’t be expressed legitimately at the ballot box, it will find a voice in the most contested towns and villages of this deeply divided country.


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