Nigeria takes fateful step to democracy

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The Independent Online
PARLIAMENTARY elections today, organised to end 15 years of military rule in Nigeria, should provide a clear indication of who will win the race to become president in a week's time.

Both presidential candidates, the retired general and former head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the one-time finance minister, Olu Falae, are seen as acceptable to the country's ever-powerful military. They have pledged that there will be no "witch-hunts" against the top brass who have defrauded the state.

Their parties, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and a joint challenge by the All People's Party (APP) and Mr Falae's Alliance for Democracy (AD) are ranged along tribal, religious and regional lines. It is the very scenario which the military has always used to justify its hold on power for all but 10 years of Nigeria's 39 years of independence.

Pini Jason, a political commentator, said: "The reason the official handover from military to civilian rule is happening on 29 May - three months after the last of the elections - is so that the military can sit down with the winners and work out how Nigeria will be run."

Even though the candidates for today's Senate, House of Representatives and National Assembly elections are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds - including top brass swapping "uniforms for agbada" (traditional dress) - their tribal affiliations are foremost in the minds of the country's 108 million people.

The AD is seen as firmly Yoruba - the tribe which dominates the south- west, including the economic capital, Lagos, with its population of between 6 and 9 million.

The Yorubas typically see themselves as disadvantaged in the face of domination by Hausa-Fulani and other tribes in the north of the country. Ever since Britain, through indirect rule, elevated the position of traditional leaders in the Muslim north, they have dominated in the powerful military.

To consolidate his position, 60-year-old Mr Falae, a Yoruba who was finance minister in the 1980s under the still-powerful General Ibrahim Babangida, has chosen a running-mate from the north, Umaru Shinkafi.

Amid bitter in-fighting, MrShinkafi was chosen at the expense of the APP's proposed presidential candidate, Ogbonnaya Onu. The departure of Dr Onu, a former governor of Abia state in the east, could cost Mr Falae crucial votes in the east when the presidential election takes place next Saturday.

In today's parliamentary elections - the results of which are not expected at least until Monday - the APP could do well in the east. The AD is expected to sweep Lagos and the south-west.

General Obasanjo, a 61-year-old Yoruba, and his PDP will not do well in the south-west where he is considered a traitor.

The act for which he is respected internationally - that he, as military dictator in 1979 handed over to a civilian president - is regarded in Yorubaland as a sell-out to the military because the man he selected was Shehu Shagari, a Hausa-Fulani.

But General Obasanjo, who has revealed himself as extremely well-funded, allegedly by military allies, will get strong support from the north, consolidated by his Hausa running mate, Abubakar Rimi.

General Obasanjo and the PDP will lose out in the east because of his role as a Marine commander during Nigeria's civil war, between 1967 and 1970, when the region declared itself the Independent Republic of Biafra.

A nation whose patience has been severely tested by the military because fuel shortages dominate everyday life in a country that is the world's fifth oil exporter, Nigeria seems nevertheless willing to await change patiently.

Abdul Oroh, director of the Civil Liberties Organisation and at the forefront of monitoring elections with dozens of foreign observers from the United States and the European Union, said Nigerians were not expecting miracles.

"The presidential candidates have been chosen by questionable means, in fact a lot of money changed hands at the primaries. But we are confident that the voting procedure will be as fair as it can be," he said.

"There were problems with registration, way back in October, and the constituencies are very inequitably drawn, to favour the north. Nevertheless, we are seeing the beginning of a democratic process, the military knows that dictatorships are unfashionable. Even with these elections, we are far from being a democracy. But this is a start," Mr Oroh added.