Election in Nigeria Was Fair Enough, Monitors Say Africa: Mood is upbeat after vote that began transition to democracy. Polling will continue early next year.

Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, 9 December, 1998

By ANN M. SIMMONS, Times Staff Writer

BUJA, Nigeria - International and domestic monitors on Tuesday praised the conduct of Nigeria's local elections last weekend but warned that some problems will have to be sorted out before state and federal voting early next year.

Nigerians across this sun-soaked capital of golden domes and granite hills celebrated what many believe to be a new era in their troubled history. "The message that comes out from our delegation is an acknowledgment of how much progress has been made in recent months to put in place an electoral process," said Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, or NDI. "At the same time, we realize that there have been shortcomings."

Together with the Carter Center, NDI helped monitor the voting Saturday in this oil-producing West African nation that was an important step toward returning it to civilian government after 15 years of military rule. Among the more serious irregularities monitors noted were a lack of voter registration cards before election day, muddled registration lists, a dearth of ballot materials and lack of privacy at polling stations. Fomunyoh, who spoke by phone from NDI's Washington office, said the shortcomings should be addressed before the next elections. The Transition Monitoring Group, a coalition of Nigerian human rights organizations, also concluded that despite some hiccups, the elections were credible. If Saturday's vote was a test of his commitment to restore democracy and civilian rule, Nigerian leader Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar passed, local analysts said. However, some Nigerians remain skeptical, and the real test of Abubakar's determination to reform his country lies in his ability to see the transition through to the end.

Success at nurturing democracy also will depend on the willingness of Nigerians to accept whichever candidates win free and fair election, and to put aside ethnic differences and work together to rebuild their country. Signs that this could happen are visible. Despite clashes in the strife-torn Niger Delta that left 14 people dead, voter turnout was relatively high. Up to 30% of eligible voters went to the polls peacefully in many areas across this country the size of California, Oregon and Nevada that is home to 108 million people and more than 250 ethnic groups.

During the regime of dictator Sani Abacha, who died in June, voter apathy was rife, and local analysts said turnout was as low as 5%. Clement Nwankwo, chairman of the Transition Monitoring Group's coordinating committee, said Saturday's turnout indicated that Nigerians want to move to democracy. He said the absence of charges that the government interfered with the vote indicated that it is committed to the transition. Abubakar has promised to break the military's hold on power by turning the government over to civilians May 29. Since coming to power, the soft-spoken, 56-year-old Abubakar, a career officer from the country's Muslim-dominated north, has freed dozens of political prisoners, vowed to make the Nigerian government less secretive and less corrupt, made moves to recover billions of dollars of stolen public money and sought the views of ordinary people on a new constitution.

"This is a new beginning; we are all convinced," said Josephine Azinge, a veteran of the capital's political scene, as she danced to the rhythm of beating drums and jingling tambourines outside the house of Esther John Audu, who won a local council seat. What impressed some voters most was that Abubakar turned up at polling stations, smiling and shaking hands. Abacha, in contrast, spent most of his days holed up in his presidential quarters. Azinge said the capital's residents feel more at ease. "You are free to express yourself now. The head of state is willing to listen. He has a good open-door policy," she said. "Everyone tends to believe that this will be a lasting [democracy].

Everyone is so much more relaxed," said Audu, a candidate of the People's Democratic Party. Preliminary results indicated that the centrist coalition of prominent academics, politicians, tribal leaders and former generals who had opposed Abacha won the majority of council seats nationwide. Only three of nine parties that ran in the local elections appeared likely to qualify for the presidential election. To qualify, a party must win at least 5% of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria's states. The final tally is expected by this weekend.