Posted by By Craig Timberg on
In a half-built office building, where exposed concrete blocks and stacks of wood told of work yet to be done, Maryam Adamu Umar, 28, smiled into the eye of a tiny camera. Moments later, a printer churned out a strip of paper that officials say will be key to the freest, fairest vote in Nigeria's 46-year struggle toward democracy.
Hope Tempered by Skepticism As Nigeria Faces Historic Vote
ABUJA, Nigeria -- In a half-built office building, where exposed concrete blocks and stacks of wood told of work yet to be done, Maryam Adamu Umar, 28, smiled into the eye of a tiny camera. Moments later, a printer churned out a strip of paper that officials say will be key to the freest, fairest vote in Nigeria's 46-year struggle toward democracy.
An election official used a child's Spider-Man ruler to tear the new, technologically advanced voter card into proper shape. And though the lamination machine had run out of plastic, Umar did not complain. She hoisted her 2-year-old daughter onto her hip and walked away with the piece of paper bearing her personal details and a small, grainy picture of herself.
"I don't think this thing is a license for a free and fair election. It's just a procedure," said Umar, dressed in the dark head scarf and long robe worn by Muslim women here. "There has never been a free and fair election in Nigeria."
Such skepticism, fed by generations of rigged votes, military coups and political violence, darkens the mood of Nigerians as they head toward what should be a historic moment -- the first ever transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another.
Analysts say its success could entrench Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and a major oil producer, as a modernizing, democratic state that could continue to provide stability to troubled West Africa. Its failure, they say, could return the nation to dictatorship or, worse still, a civil war that could undermine the region's recent steps toward peace.
Voters say they are eager for their next president to curb rampant government corruption and unify the more than 250 ethnic groups that British colonialists roped into an uneasy union before departing at Nigeria's independence in 1960. The mix, especially the north-south divide between Muslims and Christians, remains volatile. Thousands have died in political and ethnic violence in just the past decade.
"I pray that we get peace in this country," said Hamisu Muazu, 37, from the northwestern state of Zamfara. Many also say the next president must revive the economy. Despite surging oil revenue, Nigeria remains a profoundly poor, underdeveloped country, beyond the elite neighborhoods of its major cities where prominent business leaders and politicians live lavishly.
"For democracy to work, people have got to see the benefits," said Remi Oyewumi, a political analyst. "If it's just going to be for a few people to loot the public treasury, it's not going to work."
With Nigeria's many political parties about five weeks from selecting candidates for the April vote, there is at least as much anxiety about the future as excitement.
Nigerians say they have no trouble imagining worrisome scenarios: The election could be rigged. The military could take over. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had considered rewriting the constitution to seek a third term, could find a way to extend his time in office.
Or, even before any of those things, the audacious task of registering up to 70 million voters from scratch could collapse in a nation where far less ambitious government projects, such as filling potholes, routinely fall behind schedule.
"Political stalemate appears to be the hidden agenda," said Omo Omoruyi, a political analyst and top adviser to Ibrahim Babangida, a candidate for president.
The sputtering start to voter registration has fed suspicions that Obasanjo does not want the elections to occur on time. Though the process began in October, only 2,000 of the 33,000 registration machines -- shiny metal suitcases filled with printers, cameras, keyboards and sensors to record thumbprints -- had arrived by the end of last week, forcing election officials to deploy them sparingly among 120,000 polling places.
Election commission spokesman Segun Adeogun said the rest of the machines would arrive within days, allowing every voter to register before the deadline of Dec. 14. The voter list had to be compiled from scratch, he said, because the previous roll contained too many phony names and other errors.
The 2003 election, in particular, was widely regarded by Nigerians and many international observers as at least partially rigged, especially in the volatile, oil-rich Niger Delta.
That won't be possible next year, Adeogun said, because the computerized voter list will contain pictures and thumbprints of every voter.
"The 2007 election is going to be credible, is going to be transparent, is going to be free and fair, and is going to be one man, one vote," he said.
Few Nigerians express such confidence, but some do point to encouraging signs in recent years. The election of Obasanjo in 1999 ended nearly 16 years of military rule and began an era in which political activity, freedom of speech and press freedoms have generally been respected.
Many here also regard the successful opposition to Obasanjo's bid for a third term, blocked by lawmakers in May, as a crucial moment in the evolution toward full democracy. Even extensive efforts at bribery, according to news reports, failed to win over politicians aware of the broad public rejection of the idea.
Nigerians also express a cautious optimism that military coups are a thing of the past and that the time has come for a new generation of civilian rulers. That mood has weakened the high-profile bid of Babangida, a former military ruler who first took power in a 1985 coup.
"This man ruled for eight years! We've seen his style," said Hadiza Ali, 28, a hairstylist in the northern city of Kano. "It's high time he left for the younger ones."
Babangida is one of two former military rulers vying for election along with a long list of state governors and several other prominent Nigerians. Posters and billboards are already scattered across cities as the political parties move toward their nominating conventions.
Yet after decades of disappointments, many Nigerians no longer believe in the possibility of entirely honest politicians or truly free and fair elections.
They would settle, many here said, for politicians who are mostly honest or elections that are peaceful and reasonably fair.
Charles Etuk, 48, a civil engineer who had just registered, saw his new, digitized voter card as a step in that direction.
"At least it will be closer to that," he said. "The room for manipulation will be reduced."
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