Nigeria has never held successful civilian-run elections. The last one, which returned president Shehu Shagari and his National Party of Nigeria to power in 1983, was marked by widespread violence and vote-rigging. Three months later, the army staged a coup -- Nigeria's fifth since independence in 1960. \nGovernance has never been easy in Nigeria, a conglomerate of over 150 million people and some 250 ethnic or language groups. Not all share the same vision of Nigeria's future, and they are exceptionally vigorous in disputing what it should be. Civic virtue is rare. No leader can be expected to run this giant of Africa as if it were Singapore. \nNigerians once again fear that chaos will accompany the second elections since the army returned power to civilians in May 1999. Legislative elections will be held today, followed by the presidential election next week. Opposing President Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired general seeking a second term on the platform of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), is Muhammadu Buhari, another retired general, from the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Buhari led the coup against Shagari in 1983. \nTwo other candidates stand out. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is an Oxford-trained historian and retired army officer who led the Biafran secessionist attempt in 1967, which plunged the country into civil war. Gani Fawehinmi, a fiery lawyer who made his name as a human-rights campaigner under military rule, is the candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP). The PDP and ANPP are broadly center-right parties, while the NCP styles itself as the "party of the poor" and espouses social democratic policies. \nIn reality, however, the election is a straightforward fight between Obasanjo, a born-again Christian from the Yoruba southwest, and Buhari, an ascetic Muslim from the Hausa-Fulani-dominated north. So far, bleak predictions that the campaign would split Nigerians along Islamic/Christian lines, triggering sectarian violence before the voting, have not come to pass. \nBuhari, whose running mate is a Christian, has toned down his support for Shariah, the strict Islamic legal system adopted by 12 northern states over the past three years. While taking care not to anger northern voters by openly distancing himself from Shariah, Buhari pledges to uphold the nation's secular Constitution. \nThe power behind Obasanjo is his vice president, Abubakar Atiku, a northern Muslim. Atiku, a formidable political operator, is positioning himself for his own presidential bid in 2007. Atiku's huge influence balances the perceived Christian-millenarian strain of Obasanjo's presidency. \nFaced with meeting the constitutional requirement of getting votes from each state in the federation, the candidates and their handlers have gone out of their way to avoid taking positions that ruffle feathers. This is not to say that parochial sentiments are unimportant. The Alliance for Democracy, the dominant Yoruba party, is not fielding a candidate because it does not want to divide the Yoruba vote and deny victory to Obasanjo, their kinsman. Nevertheless, Nigerians have seen little of the crude "vote for my tribe" politicking that doomed previous attempts at democratic rule. \nStill, political violence has increased as the campaign enters its final stage. Marshall Harry, an ANPP chieftain and General Buhari's point man in the volatile Niger delta region, was murdered on March 5. Thugs killed an ANPP senatorial candidate in the east a few days later. \nMoreover, communal violence has combined with deep-seated local resentment against western oil companies to render the oil-rich delta a battlefront. Youth of the Ijaw tribe demand that the government redraw local government boundaries, which they claim favor the Itsekiri, a rival group, before the elections. Violent clashes between the two groups have left hundreds dead and wounded. \nThe presence of federal troops did not stop the warring factions from disrupting oil production, forcing Chevron/Texaco and Shell -- which account for more than half of Nigeria's daily oil production -- to suspend operations. Some calm has returned, and oil production is resuming. But the lethal mix of poverty, youth unemployment, and the mesmerizing spectacle of millions of petrodollars flowing out of the delta and into the pockets of the powerful, casts a long shadow. \nEthnic militias are also making a show of strength elsewhere in the south, mainly among the Igbo and the Yoruba, whose political elites call for greater political and fiscal autonomy. \nRattled, leading politicians from all the parties met in Abuja, the capital, and promised to eschew violence and intimidation during the elections -- an encouraging sign that the political class is keen not to repeat the coup-inciting mistakes of the past. Of course, the army is in no hurry to seize power. Revulsion for military rule runs deep. Ordinary Nigerians hold the "Khaki Boys," as army officers are derisively called, responsible for today's wrecked economy and social malaise. \nBut four years of democratic rule have not brought Nigerians much relief, with the majority still living below the poverty line. Obasanjo's government has no clear idea about how to address the nation's key problems -- an ailing, oil-dependent economy hobbled by US$30 billion in external debt, a deeply flawed unitary Constitution forced on a socially-diverse people by the military in 1999, and an exploding youth population. If Buhari beats Obasanjo, he is unlikely to do better. \nOrdinary Nigerians, brutalized by a dizzying succession of corrupt and inept military juntas, have, like a drowning man, clutched at "democracy" as their lifeline. This hope alone keeps the country from disintegrating into a thousand warring parts. \nIke Okonta founded Tempo, an underground newspaper in Lagos that played a critical role in ousting General Ibrahim Babangida from power in 1993. He is now a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. \n Copyright: Project Syndicate
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