Nigeria's president faces free vote challenge

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An electoral officer counts ballots as people watch at the end of the parliamentary elections in Oshodi district in Nigeria"s commercial capital of Lagos April 9, 2011
Image caption,
Nigeria's new election system allows voters to witness the counting process

Nigerians are due to go to the polls on Saturday for presidential elections - a week after the delayed parliamentary polls were finally held. Those elections were considered fairly credible but with more at stake this time, will politicians be able to resist the "mago-mago", or vote rigging, of elections past, asks the BBC's Caroline Duffield in Lagos.

"We will not allow any suspect thumb marks," roared the young chief electoral officer, a sweat breaking out on his neck.

With every eye fixed on the precious ballots, around 200 people stood and watched.

Each and every smudgy thumb-print was scrutinised: The shaky blue splodge, the inky comet trailing blue splashes, the giant thumbs so large they had somehow voted for two parties rather than one.

To a fresh observer, it was the very opposite of what you might expect a Nigerian election to be - an escape from the grotesque abuses of ballot stuffing and vote rigging of the past.

Election chiefs are praying that the same happens again this Saturday, as Nigerians go to the polls to vote for a president.

"Playing mago-mago", or vote rigging, has been an addiction for Nigeria's political elite, poisoning every election since the end of military rule.

The newly-introduced system, the "open secret ballot system", allows each voter to stand and witness the ballot box opened, the votes counted, the results declared.

Nigerians call this "Defending Your Vote".

Big scalps

"At the very least, we can say that Inec, the election commission, looks independent," says Olisa Agbakoba, former president of the Nigerian Bar Association.

"There is a lot of joy and encouragement to take from what has happened, even though there have been logistical challenges."

But while election monitors and observers happily toast less ballot box snatching and fraud, even the optimists warn it was just the first of three votes - and it is clear that the old rigging machine has not yet croaked its last.

Official observers suggest around 15% of ballots may have been fake this time.

And some familiarly ugly scenes have played out.

In Anambra, the returning officer publicly declared he had been offered inducements to declare one candidate the winner.

For Nigerians, though, the thrill has been the number of big scalps seized by the opposition and the damage done to the governing party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

The sight of the PDP forced to swallow large losses is making many people blink.

A bloated beast that has gorged itself on public money since the end of military rule, it has now felt the force of voters' anger.

It does still have a majority in the National Assembly - but its dominant grip is now seriously weakened.

High-profile casualties include the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, who finds himself unemployed; as does the daughter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello.

High stakes

The loosening of the PDP's stranglehold is being seen by some as the coming of political maturity - maybe even the birth of true multi-party democracy.

And while President Goodluck Jonathan, the PDP's candidate, is still the frontrunner to return to the presidential villa, he faces a threat in the north from former military leader Muhammadu Buhari.

Image caption,
Elections for powerful state governors are now due on 26 April

Southern-born Mr Jonathan's ascendancy to power has provoked a groundswell of bitterness in the north.

His leadership of the PDP party has torn up the old rhythm of north and south "taking turns" at the top - many northerners covet the presidency, believing it is their "turn" in power.

And these elections matter far beyond Nigeria's borders.

The 2007 polls were a frenzy of vote rigging and violence, hobbling Nigeria's moral authority in West Africa and stripping it of its leadership role.

In recent months, the country has staged a diplomatic come-back, lobbying for intervention in Ivory Coast and backing Western air-strikes in Libya.

And Nigeria is ambitious, vying for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and acting as chairman of the regional group Ecowas for a third term.

The coming polls will shape Nigeria's image internationally and they will be closely watched overseas.

For the two elections still to run - the presidency and state governorships - the stakes are high, with tens of millions of dollars as the prize for the eventual winner.

The temptation for politicians to play the old "mago-mago" games will be strong. It will not be easy for them to resist.

Nigeria: A nation divided

To win at the first round, a candidate not only needs the majority of votes cast, but at least 25% of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria's 36 states. Goodluck Jonathan, of the PDP, reached that threshold in 31 states; runner-up Muhammadu Buhari of the CPC only did so in 16 states.

Nigeria's 160 million people are divided between numerous ethno-linguistic groups and also along religious lines. Broadly, the Hausa-Fulani people based in the north are mostly Muslims. The Yorubas of the south-west are divided between Muslims and Christians, while the Igbos of the south-east and neighbouring groups are mostly Christian or animist. The Middle Belt is home to hundreds of groups with different beliefs, and around Jos there are frequent clashes between Hausa-speaking Muslims and Christian members of the Berom community.

Despite its vast resources, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world, according to the UN. The poverty in the north is in stark contrast to the more developed southern states. While in the oil-rich south-east, the residents of Delta and Akwa Ibom complain that all the wealth they generate flows up the pipeline to Abuja and Lagos.

Southern residents tend to have better access to healthcare, as reflected by the greater uptake of vaccines for polio, tuberculosis, tetanus and diphtheria. Some northern groups have in the past boycotted immunisation programmes, saying they are a Western plot to make Muslim women infertile. This led to a recurrence of polio, but the vaccinations have now resumed.

Female literacy is seen as the key to raising living standards for the next generation. For example, a newborn child is far likelier to survive if its mother is well-educated. In Nigeria we see a stark contrast between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and animist south. In some northern states less than 5% of women can read and write, whereas in some Igbo areas more than 90% are literate.

Nigeria is Africa's biggest oil producer and among the biggest in the world but most of its people subsist on less than $2 a day. The oil is produced in the south-east and some militant groups there want to keep a greater share of the wealth which comes from under their feet. Attacks by militants on oil installations led to a sharp fall in Nigeria's output during the last decade. But in 2010, a government amnesty led thousands of fighters to lay down their weapons.

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