Nigeria: Obasanjo’s election victory — a poisoned chalice

Amid growing charges of vote rigging Olusegun Obasanjo seems to be on course to be declared winner of Nigeria’s bitterly contested 19 April Presidential election. How stable his rule will be is a very different question.

On the surface the re-election of Obasanjo and the Peoples Democratic Party seems inexplicable given the general background of four years of mounting resentment by Nigerians against the rulers elected in 1999.

Countless observers have commented on the widespread hostility towards politicians. "The politicians are still filling their back pockets while we live like animals" one Lagos resident told the London-based Times newspaper. A German newspaper commented "today most Nigerians associate democracy with increasing poverty, violence and unlimited corruption" (Süddeutsche Zeitung).

Simple vote rigging does seem to have played a part in Obasanjo’s victory, especially in the oil producing "South-South" region, most notably in Rivers state where a nearly 100% turnout and an over 90% vote for Obasanjo is reported despite an opposition boycott call. The European Union’s observer team said that the elections were "marred by serious irregularities and fraud", that in six states the results lack credibility and that they "witnessed and obtained evidence of widespread election fraud in 13 states". That means rigging in over a third of Nigeria’s states. Max Van der Berg, the EU’s chief observer, told the Nigerian Weekly Trust that in Rivers state "its clear that in some places there was no connection between the ballot papers and the results".

Ballot rigging

But ballot rigging is not the only explanation for the election result.

The reality was that none of the main parties’ offered any real choice. They represented different bands of robbers who were desperate to win office in order to loot the state treasury provided by income from oil and gas exports. The most significant differences between them were often their different ethnic origins. The only party that could be seen as offering an alternative to the looters, the radical National Conscience Party (NCP), did not yet have the strength to be seen by the broad masses as a viable alternative.

In this situation millions did not vote. In Lagos only a minority, 1.9 million of the 4.6 million registered voters were officially recorded as having voted. The high voting figures in some states can only be viewed with great scepticism.

Really the election results depended upon four main factors: vote rigging, massive vote buying, a genuine rejection of the powers that be in some states and the main parties’ cultivation of ethnic support. The PDP, as the main ruling party, was able to outspend the other parties. As the BBC commented, "in cities the PDP operates out of large new buildings – illustrating that the ruling party has no shortage of money".

In the predominately Yoruba southwest five of the six Alliance for Democracy (AD) governors were beaten by Obasanjo’s PDP. For example in Ogun state many people saw the PDP as the only visible and dynamic alternative to the AD. However the PDP lost Kano state due both to its record and to the ethnic shift in votes which saw it lose northern votes to Buhari’s ANPP while gaining southern votes.

The re-election of Obasanjo does not reflect the situation on the ground where there is widespread bitterness over the non-performance of the national and state governments elected in 1999. This can only be removed if electricity becomes stable, jobs are provided etc., all of which are extremely unlikely to occur so long as the present system remains in place.

This is especially so because the first objective facing the victorious candidates is to recoup the huge amounts of money they have invested in the election, something that will be made more complicated by the recent fall in the oil price.

The conduct of this election means that, in the psyche of the average Nigerian, the government will be confirmed as belonging to the moneybags. The impression has being created that, with enough money, a candidate can always win. Never before has bribery being used so much. There was a massive growth of "One on One" bribery (i.e. the buying of votes). Of course this is not the only reason for the results, in Ogun state the AD handed out massive amounts of money, but many simply accepted their cash while having no intention of voting for them.

In this situation the NCP was squeezed. In Lagos its Presidential vote fell to 104,245 compared with 116,054 in the national Senate election a week earlier.

Despite this result many NCP members are in a good mood. They feel that "we were fighting lions with bare hands and we survived to fight another day".

Within the NCP members of the Democratic Socialist Movement, the Nigerian section of the CWI, are explaining that this disputed election will open up a period of turbulence in Nigeria that will and give an opportunity to build a mass movement to challenge the existing elite.

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April 2003