Nigeria's Electoral Intrigue

December 22, 2006 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics

Nigeria's Electoral Intrigue

The West, and Al-Qaeda, will watch Nigeria’s unfolding electoral process with interest.

ABUJA, Nigeria

It barely registers on inside-the-Beltway policy discussions, but few countries are as vital to the strategic interests of the United States as Nigeria. With some 35.9 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves-the largest in Africa and the eighth largest in the world-the West African country is currently America's fifth-largest supplier of oil. Given its sectarian and religious fault lines, however, Al-Qaeda has also identified Nigeria as a viable and strategic host for its global jihad against the West.

In the coming days, the country's political parties are expected to finalize their slates, and there have already been some noteworthy developments. Nigerians, other Africans and Americans will be watching with interest the unfolding electoral campaign and procedures, which will culminate in state and federal elections scheduled, respectively, for April 14 and 21, 2007. A peaceful, constitutional (if not fully democratic) transition will give a significant boost to regional stability and international security-consider the iconic value of an oil-rich nation with a Muslim population three times that of Saudi Arabia's burnishing its democratic credentials.

On the other hand, if the election process falters or is otherwise thwarted or subverted, Nigeria might simply come unglued as its ethnic, regional and religious groups descend into an orgy of Hobbesian violence. In either case, 2007 will be a critical year for both Nigerians-and the oil-dependent West.

Observers are anxiously watching incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo. Some take at face value the ruling People's Democratic Party's choice of Governor Umar Musa Yar'Adua as Obasanjo's "anointed" successor, who will presumably coast to "victory"-a victory for formal constitutionalism, if not substantive democracy. Others, noting the troubled electoral process to date, believe that the president has purposely engineered the system to fail in order to secure an extension of his hold on power. Still others, an admittedly shrink pool of optimists, hope that, a few glitches notwithstanding, the constitutional process will actually unfold democratically and that when Obasanjo steps down on May 29, 2007, Nigeria will indeed have a legitimate transition. 

Beyond, but not unrelated to, the president's intentions lies a procedural issue of broad importance. During a recent visit to Nigeria, I didn't witness any registration activity. After seven days in the capital of Abuja, the only evidence I saw that a voter registration was supposedly taking place was a solitary billboard encouraging voter registration-and that piece of publicity, which gave no indication of where a potential voter would actually register, was located twenty kilometers outside the capital on the road to Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport.

But the statutory deadline to conclude voter registration was December 14, 2006. At that date, Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission claimed to have registered 10 million people out of what most demographers estimate to be an electorate of between 60 and 70 million eligible voters. A new registration is required because the voter register from the 2003 poll-if it is still available, accounts differ-is not considered reliable. Observers note that it contains anywhere between 10 and 20 million fraudulent names appeared in that earlier register. The method chosen to carry out the new registration exercise was computerized "direct data capture" (DDC) machines, which record each voter's personal information, photo, and thumbprint and issue him/her an identification card. Procurement and other delays led to an exceptional shortage of the DDC units-in early December, for example, Imo state in the south had received only 82 such machines with which to register eligible voters among its 4 million inhabitants.

As the December 14 deadline came and went, by a rather dubious legal sleight of hand, the commission's head declared that the organization would continue to register up until the February 14, 2007 deadline to publish a final electoral register-but even that would require the registration of almost a million voters a day. Thus there is the very real concern about voter disenfranchisement tainting the upcoming poll even before the ballots are cast.

So far, the roster of presidential contenders do not appear equipped to foster national unity, if that task is even possible in Nigeria, and political parties have proliferated to such a degree that virtually guarantees that candidates will tailor their campaigns to garner advantages from sectarian, ethnic and religious divisions. On Sunday, the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) gave its presidential nomination to Yar'Adua, the sickly governor of Katsina state in the north, whose older brother served as Obasanjo's deputy during the latter's earlier military rule. Yar'Adua's running mate will be Goodluck Jonathan, a governor from oil-rich Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta whose wife is under indictment for money laundering. The following day, after Ahmed Sani Yeremi, the governor of Zamfara state who precipitated the nationwide sharia controversy by introducing it in his northwestern state several years ago, bowed out, the nomination of the main opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) went to Muhammadu Buhari, the former military chief who overthrew Nigeria's last elected president in 1983 and who lost the contested 2003 election to Obasanjo. The other major opposition party, the Action Congress Party (ACP), gave its nomination to Obasanjo's own vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who was suspended from the governing PDP for allegedly diverting $125 million to his personal accounts, after falling out with the president over the latter's failed bid for a third term.

Threatening the nation's coalescing behind one victorious leader are the religious divisions of recent years. These have their origins in ethnic fault lines-recall the 1967-1970 Biafran War in which over one million died as the Igbo in the east tried unsuccessfully to secede-which have taken a religious dimension, with "Muslim" groups (Hausa, Fulani) pitted against "Christian" groups (Igbo, Yoruba). Nigeria's almost equal numbers of Christians and Muslims have been dancing very close to the precipice since 1999, when twelve predominantly Muslim northern states (out of a total of 36 states plus the federal capital territory of Abuja) began adopting separate legal codes based on Islamic sharia law over the objections of their own Christian and other religious minorities, as well as the southern and central states of the federation. The resulting communal riots have claimed an estimated 10,000 lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Outsiders have not been slow in recognizing the potential for mischief amidst these heated divisions. No less a figure than Osama bin Laden himself, in a February 11, 2003, audio message broadcast by Al Jazeera, declared Nigeria as one of six "most qualified regions for liberation" (the other five were Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) from "their unjust and renegade ruling regimes, which are enslaved by the United States." Islamist radicals have not been slow to take the Al-Qaeda leader up on his suggestion, increasing their activities to exploit the local religious and political tensions and to prepare the ground for further penetration, if not a new, full-fledged front in their fight against the West, as a number of jihadist strategists have advocated.

In this context, even purely local grievances have a way of spiraling into global concerns. The attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), for example, while largely fueled the legitimate grievances of the ethnic minorities in the region over environmental damage and political neglect, also have a link to larger conflicts. MEND itself is largely a "rebranding" of an earlier group, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, which was active until the arrest last year of its founder, Asari Dokubo-a convert to Islam who received training in the same Libyan camps that produced Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh. Dokubo was an unabashed admirer of Bin Laden, and has paralleled his struggles against the Nigerian federal authorities with Al-Qaeda's "fight against the arrogance of the West."

Photos of MEND attacks against petroleum installations, including last Friday's deadly attack against a Shell oil facility in southeastern Bayelsa state, have appeared on radical Islamist websites in the Middle East with captions describing the combatants as "the mujahidin in Nigeria" who are fighting "U.S. oil companies who rob the wealth of Muslim Nigeria and of the world."

Legitimate concerns that Obasanjo may still be trying to win a "third term by stealth" lend momentum not only to these "mujahidin", but also the other dissident elements. The one-time reformist president has become inert and reluctant to leave office. His supporters tried, unsuccessfully, to push through a constitutional amendment that would allow incumbent presidents and governors to seek a third term. The ensuing debate consumed much of the nation's political energy through the first half of 2006, when it should have been preparing the polls scheduled to take place is less than four months' time.

Still, the president has made important accomplishments, winning historical debt relief concession from the Paris Club that wipes out some $30 billion of the country's $37 billion external debt. The government has also taken steps to fight the endemic culture of corruption that has long plagued the country's political, economic, and social development.

And while those achievements improve the political terrain for a new, incoming leader, the judgment of the revered Yoruba statesman Chief Obafemi Awolowo regarding Nigeria continues to ring with some resonance: "Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians' in the same sense as there are ‘English', ‘Welsh', or ‘French.' The word ‘Nigerian' is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not."