Nigeria votes out the tricky and the greedy

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AT THE MAIN village shrine in Nenwe, at the heart of the erstwhile Republic of Biafra, Chukwuemeka Onuh yesterday could not see why the ancestors or, for that matter, any living beings would want any truck with Nigerian politicians, military or civilian.

"Whatever the result of the presidential election, the military will continue to run this country, but in the guise of a civilian man, probably Olusegun Obasanjo," said Mr Onuh, a piece-job electrician.

"I have voted for Ulo Falae, because I prefer him to a military man like Obasanjo and in the hopes that, maybe, there is some fairness in the election. But the whole process is irrelevant to me."

Nenwe, a lush, green farming settlement near Enugu in eastern Nigeria, "has no interest in politics", the electrician went on. "Politics is a pastime for rich businessmen and corrupt military men." As a minibus marked with the logo of the Independent Electoral Commission (Inec) pulled up at the primary school with ballot boxes, Mr Onuh turned in the other direction and pointed to a dozen men diligently digging a trench across the road.

"This is the work of Odoziaku, the farming women's association. They had a good year, thanks to their dance group, so they have donated this culvert and the cement needed for it to the NIU - the Nenwe Improvement Union," he said proudly.

To a European, the NIU, which holds regular public meetings, is a kind of local council. It oversees village matters and collects a levy from all households. "There is nothing political about it," said Mr Onuh. "In Nigeria, if you want anything done, you must do it yourself and stay as far away from politicians as possible." Up the road, a group of women, taking a break from the palm nut harvest, were preparing lunch for the workmen. Most of them had registered but few planned to vote.

In common with the rest of Nigeria, this large village of four settlements has for the past six months been urged by the military to go to the polls to elect civilian leaders. Local elections in December were followed by gubernatorial and parliamentary polls. They culminated in yesterday's presidential elections, in which the 63-year-old former military head of state, General Obasanjo, faced Mr Falae, a 60-year-old former finance minister for a dictator.

Widespread fraud, ballot box stuffing, bribery and intimidation have been reported to the hundreds of international observers sent from the US and the European Union. Former US president Jimmy Carter, leading one delegation, was unusually outspoken about irregularities in last week's parliamentary elections. But he is not expected to condemn the process outright, for fear of destabilising the country.

On 29 May, the winner of this weekend's vote will be installed as president of the world's biggest black nation - an important place because it has about 100 million people and because it is the world's fifth oil producer.

The transition, seen through by Gen Abdulsalami Abubakar, the head of state who took power last June, is supposed to mark the end of the jamboree for ruthless, greedy generals, such as the late Sani Abacha, who executed opponents and pocketed the nation's wealth.

"It is just new wine in an old bottle," said Good Luck Ohochuku, a visitor to the village yesterday from Port Harcourt. "Abubakar is more tricky than Abacha. If Abacha had been tricky, not just greedy, he would not be dead." The greed and mismanagement of the generals do not only mean that the people of Nenwe have to dig their own trenches. After only 10 years of civilian rule since independence from Britain in 1960, infrastructure is virtually unknown in Nigeria.

The only good roads are those which lead to the homes and offices of corrupt people; buying fuel often involves queuing overnight; even the middle classes can no longer rely on a regular supply of water and electricity. The nation which likes to think of itself as Africa's powerhouse is a pauper.

To analysts prepared to take the Nigerian elections seriously, Nenwe was just the place to be. Mr Falae was certain of strong support in the Yoruba heartlands of the southwest and Gen Obasanjo, the favourite, could expect to win the Hausa-Fulani north, power base of the country and of the military establishment. It was said that the vote of the politically marginalised Igbos in the east, still scarred by the 1967-70 civil war for an independent country between the Cross and Niger rivers, could determine the election's outcome.

The east has not forgotten that Gen Obasanjo played a key role in the Biafrans' surrender after three years of bloody fighting and up to a million deaths from starvation. His presidential candidacy for the People's Democratic Party was won only at the expense of Alex Ekwueme, a hero in the east.

Indeed, in Nenwe, which was at the centre of the war and where four elders were bayoneted by Nigerian troops after most of the population fled, there did seem to be a swing towards Mr Falae. But what was most striking about the 17,000 registered voters was that they were nowhere to be seen. In some countries it is called apathy: here it is desperation.

By the afternoon, when the Inec curfew limiting people to their wards was lifted, things returned to normal and the benches filled up by the shrine, a plumed altar surrounded by kola nuts, calabash containers, empty bottles and bits of iron.

"People come from as far away as Cameroon for help and healing," said Stephen Onuoha, who minds the shrine. "This is where people feel they get real help and when it has happened, they bring a ram or a chicken as an offering. All we have is God and the ancestors."