The Battle for Nigeria

Election by Litigation
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 11 2007 1:03 PM

The Battle for Nigeria

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For a country the Atlantic described as "the largest failed state on earth," Nigeria is blessed with a wealth of constitutional scholars. Virtually every aspect of this month's elections, ranging from the vice president's eligibility to contest the presidency to the constitutionality of the voter-registration process, is being litigated with a ferocity that makes Bush v. Gore look like a morning in traffic court. During a recent trip to Nigeria, several meetings were put on pause while speakers riffled through the pages of law books, and a prominent attorney gifted one of my colleagues with a copy of the Electoral Act of 2006 so she could study all 166 provisions at home. Browsing the Nigerian newspaper stories collected at allAfrica.com is like paging through a law review—"constitutional" this, "court" that; "rigging" this, "lawyers" that. The nation known around the world for corruption and e-mail scams is running its presidential election like a litigious Manhattan co-op board.

June Thomas June Thomas
June Thomas, Slate's foreign editor, visited Nigeria as part of a Gatekeeper Editors Fellowship organized by the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Nigeria contains many worlds. During 10 days in the country on a fact-finding trip for U.S. editors, I saw just a few of them, but I did catch a glimpse of both the calm, air-conditioned indoor world of politicians, lawyers, and diplomats—where we spent the bulk of our time—and the anarchic, sweaty outdoor world of the voters. The denizens of that first world can talk for hours about politicians and potential eleventh-hour alliances, about strategy and the 20 known methods of rigging an election. The people on the street are angry about open sewers and the dearth of jobs, schools, and clean water, and they have little faith that corrupt politicians will solve these problems.

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As a recent International Crisis Group report put it, the Nigerian elections of April 14 and 21 "are not a routine quadrennial ritual." If elections happen and the results are regarded as relatively free, fair, and transparent, it will be the first time in the nation's history that one civilian administration will hand over power to another. Right now, that looks like a mighty big if.

Nigerian elections aren't issues-based—far more significant than policies and principles are where a candidate was born, the ethnic group he belongs to, and his religion. With the country pretty evenly split between Muslims and Christians and riven by regional rivalries, the notion of "power shift"—rotating the top office around the regions—has become paramount. Since current President Olusegun Obasanjo is a southern Christian, it's generally accepted that the next president will be a northern Muslim—and all the leading contenders meet that description. When elections are decided by whose turn it is rather than who has the best ideas, it's hard to be optimistic about democracy.

Vice President Atiku Abubakar—known by his first name—was largely responsible for Obasanjo's first election success in 1999, organizing the PDP campaign while Obasanjo recovered from his three-year imprisonment by military dictator Sani Abacha. In a political system run on tacit understandings, Atiku expected Obasanjo to step down in his favor after one term. By the time the president started his bid for a third consecutive mandate, the two men were sworn enemies, and last December, Atiku left the ruling party for the new Action Congress.

After President Obasanjo's attempt to amend the constitution to allow a third term failed, he turned his attention to controlling his succession. The man he chose to continue his legacy of reforms—or the puppet he imposed on his ruling People's Democratic Party, depending on your point of view—is Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, a 56-year-old former chemistry teacher who is most frequently described as "reclusive." Everyone we spoke with agreed that he is, as one analyst put it, "as clean as a Nigerian politician can be," and he is certainly well-connected (his brother was Obasanjo's deputy during his years as military ruler in the late 1970s). If elected, he would be Nigeria's first president to have earned a university degree. Unfortunately, he is also defiantly uncharismatic and sickly. In the middle of the campaign, he was whisked off to Germany for medical treatment. Yar'Adua says he went all that way for a checkup, which is as believable as the government's endless reassurances that all is well with election preparations. Although Yar'Adua claims to be cured, it's widely believed that he still suffers from a serious kidney ailment.

The president and vice president, who hadn't spoken in three months when we met with them in January, still trade insults, charges of corruption, and legal briefs. Our group was even drawn into the feud, with each man using newspaper coverage of our interviews to take swipes at the other. We "12 American journalists," as the papers shorthanded us, were treated like little Jimmy passing messages between quarreling parents: Tell the vice president he is a crook, Obansanjo urged us. Well, tell the president, "I cannot guarantee you there will be peaceful elections," Atiku countered.

When we met with Atiku in a room in the vice-presidential villa that appeared to be wallpapered with pool-table-quality green baize, he claimed to fear for his life. This wasn't just the usual self-aggrandizing politician's fantasy/nightmare, but specifically because the death of a candidate is a constitutional justification for delaying elections. (On March 29, candidate Adebayo Adefarati died while campaigning, but the electoral commission said it wouldn't affect the polling date.)

Sixty-year-old Atiku is still fighting numerous attempts to keep him off the ballot. On April 3, two courts in the nation's capital issued competing rulings about whether he can stand. As of April 10, the latest word is that still another court will decide an appeal on April 29—more than a week after the presidential election.

Could Atiku win with Obasanjo's political machine ranged against him? Some analysts reckon that the president is so unpopular that the very public squabble will help Atiku. If he is kept off the ballot, the big winner could be 64-year-old Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party. Whereas Obasanjo takes pride in having ended his days as military ruler in 1979 by handing power to the elected government of Shehu Shagari, Buhari is remembered for leading the coup that ousted Shagari in December 1983. He ruled for 20 months in what journalist Karl Maier described as "the country's most draconian government to date." In recent days, Nigerian newspapers have reported that Atiku is exploring "the Buhari option"—forming a united opposition against Obasanjo's PDP.  

Time and again, Nigerians told us that despite rigging at every stage, voters would know if the election's final outcome reflected the will of the people—and if it didn't, they wouldn't accept the imposition of a leader. "But how would they know?" we always asked. Political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim offered the most concrete explanation: "For 2007, one huge issue of technology is on the side of the Nigerian citizen: the cell phone. People are going to talk to each other about what happened in their constituencies, and Nigerians will know." Will the popular assessment be objective and scientific? No. "But," said Ibrahim, "the subjectivity will be based on truth."

With so many unknowns—about the candidates, electoral logistics, and preparedness—less than a week before voting starts, even if the elections occur, the chances that the results will be acceptable to Nigerians are dwindling. In January, several experts suggested that Obasanjo was orchestrating the general breakdown of law and order—particularly in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, where the presence of foreign workers and the global importance of Nigeria's oil supply draws international attention—so that he could declare a state of emergency, which would postpone the vote.

Nigeria has two assets that guarantee the West won't allow the anarchy of the streets to penetrate too far into the corridors of power: huge reserves of oil and a massive population. After a campaign dominated by legal maneuverings, it seems more and more likely that constitutional niceties will be set aside in the name of stability. Still, it's hard to imagine that a tiny elite can overrule the objections of 140 million people forever.