Nigeria's Rigged Democracy

FOUL PLAY

The official results of Nigeria's elections last April showed overwhelming victories for the ruling party. The presidential winner, Umaru Yar'Adua, received 70 percent of the vote; his nearest opponent had 20 percent -- a margin of victory exceeding that in 1983, when discontent over extensive rigging led to a coup ousting the just-elected civilian president.

According to international and domestic observers alike, the process was deeply flawed. It was unclear until just days before each election -- for state offices on April 14 and for the presidency and the National Assembly on April 21 -- who the final candidates would be. On election day, the names of some contenders who had been reinstated by the courts were not on the ballots. The elections themselves were disastrous, with even more rigging and violence than during the previous presidential election, in 2003, when stolen ballot boxes and bogus vote counts marred the polling. All told, there were some 700 violent election-related incidents between November and March, among them the assassinations of two gubernatorial front-runners.

None of this was supposed to happen. Nigeria's April elections were billed as a landmark: the first time since the country's independence, in 1960, that political leadership would change hands from one civilian to another. Africa's most populous country would thus join the small list of entrenched African democracies and boost its clout as a regional player. Instead, when President Olusegun Obasanjo steps down, he will be leaving behind an unsettled polity with still-weak political institutions and a successor struggling for legitimacy.

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