Sat, Apr 12, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Nigerians struggle to hold on to their precarious democracy

Numerous competing tribes and ethnic groups have made civilian rule almost impossible in the country in the four decades since it gained independence

By Ike Okonta

Nigeria has never held successful civilian-run elections. The last one, which returned president Shehu Shagari and his National Party of Nigeria to power in 1983, was marked by widespread violence and vote-rigging. Three months later, the army staged a coup -- Nigeria's fifth since independence in 1960.

Governance has never been easy in Nigeria, a conglomerate of over 150 million people and some 250 ethnic or language groups. Not all share the same vision of Nigeria's future, and they are exceptionally vigorous in disputing what it should be. Civic virtue is rare. No leader can be expected to run this giant of Africa as if it were Singapore.

Nigerians once again fear that chaos will accompany the second elections since the army returned power to civilians in May 1999. Legislative elections will be held today, followed by the presidential election next week. Opposing President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general seeking a second term on the platform of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), is Muhammadu Buhari, another retired general, from the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Buhari led the coup against Shagari in 1983.

Two other candidates stand out. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is an Oxford-trained historian and retired army officer who led the Biafran secessionist attempt in 1967, which plunged the country into civil war. Gani Fawehinmi, a fiery lawyer who made his name as a human-rights campaigner under military rule, is the candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP). The PDP and ANPP are broadly center-right parties, while the NCP styles itself as the "party of the poor" and espouses social democratic policies.

In reality, however, the election is a straightforward fight between Obasanjo, a born-again Christian from the Yoruba southwest, and Buhari, an ascetic Muslim from the Hausa-Fulani-dominated north. So far, bleak predictions that the campaign would split Nigerians along Islamic/Christian lines, triggering sectarian violence before the voting, have not come to pass.

Buhari, whose running mate is a Christian, has toned down his support for Shariah, the strict Islamic legal system adopted by 12 northern states over the past three years. While taking care not to anger northern voters by openly distancing himself from Shariah, Buhari pledges to uphold the nation's secular Constitution.

The power behind Obasanjo is his vice president, Abubakar Atiku, a northern Muslim. Atiku, a formidable political operator, is positioning himself for his own presidential bid in 2007. Atiku's huge influence balances the perceived Christian-millenarian strain of Obasanjo's presidency.

Faced with meeting the constitutional requirement of getting votes from each state in the federation, the candidates and their handlers have gone out of their way to avoid taking positions that ruffle feathers. This is not to say that parochial sentiments are unimportant. The Alliance for Democracy, the dominant Yoruba party, is not fielding a candidate because it does not want to divide the Yoruba vote and deny victory to Obasanjo, their kinsman. Nevertheless, Nigerians have seen little of the crude "vote for my tribe" politicking that doomed previous attempts at democratic rule.

Still, political violence has increased as the campaign enters its final stage. Marshall Harry, an ANPP chieftain and General Buhari's point man in the volatile Niger delta region, was murdered on March 5. Thugs killed an ANPP senatorial candidate in the east a few days later.

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