Nigeria: Blemishes and blessings in the elections

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JOS/KANO, 15 April 2011 (IRIN) - Analysts say the initial round of parliamentary elections, which began on 9 April, have been more transparent than the country's past three elections, which were marred by violence and irregularities, but nonetheless, evidence of candidates in some towns employing desperate measures, including vote-buying, has emerged.

According to Shehu Dalhatu, director of the Centre for Democratic Research and Training (CDRT) in the northern city of Kano, candidates for the 9 April legislative elections recruited agents who hung around a few metres from polling stations offering money for votes. In some cases candidates demanded Muslim voters swear on the Koran that they would not change their mind once in the polling booth.

Akibu Dalhatu of Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a local group in Jigawa state that has been involved in election monitoring in Nigeria since 1999, told IRIN that when monitoring the polls: "I witnessed politicians [in villages in Jigawa] openly offering money to voters at polling stations to cast their votes in favour of their candidates and many voters took the money with the promise to vote for the politicians' candidates."

"Most of the voters approached were women who are mostly illiterate with no voter education and therefore more gullible to such offers," he told IRIN.

Politicians also went door-to-door offering food, soap, clothes and money to potential voters, residents of the northern city of Kano told IRIN. "I was offered a wax fabric and 500 naira [US$3.3] which I collected, but I voted for the candidate of my choice," Fatima Musa, a 35-year-old voter in Kano, told IRIN.

In previous elections, voters in northern Nigeria would often wear leaves on their heads to advertise that their vote was for sale, and would openly haggle with candidates' representatives over the price.

The practice is evidence of disillusionment with the elections' process. "After voting several times, and their electoral wishes have been flaunted through election rigging, many voters feel their votes do not count and will take money to vote," TMG director Festus Okoye told IRIN. "Coupled with excruciating poverty and illiteracy, these voters would readily part with their votes for some paltry financial gain."

Yahaya Badda, a 65-year-old farmer in the northern city of Sokoto, declared his vote was for sale.

"I have been voting since the 1960s during the first republic, but good leaders have deserted Nigeria since then, and now my vote is for sale... I'm ready to give my vote for 2,000 naira [$13] which is better than wasting my time in casting a vote that will not count."

Nick Dazen, spokesman for Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission, told IRIN: "We are aware that some people do sell their votes, but the electoral law doesn't empower us to sanction [punish] such people. The best we can do is to appeal to their patriotic instinct not to exchange their votes for money and ensure they vote for the right candidate."

More transparency

Despite irregularities in some cases, Nigerians are more engaged in this elections' process than they have been in previous years, said Nasir Abbas, a civil society activist with the Civil Rights Congress in the northern city of Kaduna.

"Procedurally, [elections in Nigeria] used to be an affair of thuggery. Street vagabonds were put in charge of this [rigging and intimidation] and a lot of upper class citizens didn't go out to vote. [But] the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) has been unpopular [in recent years] so now a lot of people are voting. Elites, the downtrodden... people are determined to have an upright process," said Abbas.

Civil society watchdog groups including the Abuja-based coalition known as the Elections Situation Room, say electoral reforms initiated under the leadership of respected elections commission chief Attahiru Jega have enabled greater transparency in the 2011 polls. International observer groups also praised the polls as the most credible since 1999.

One of the new regulations allows voters to remain at the polls after casting their ballots in order to observe the counting procedure, making it more difficult for fraudsters to manipulate the results. In other cases, observers have used SMS technology to report real-time on irregularities.

Presidential race

However, Oladayo Olaide of the Open Society Institute in the capital, Abuja, said victories of opposition candidates in the country's commercial capital Lagos and in some areas of the "core North" could push the ruling PDP to "become more desperate, which could mean [the party] could come out with new tricks" on 16 April when the presidential elections take place.

It is not beyond the ruling party to employ "all manner of tricks" if politicians feel their power could be taken by voters casting ballots against them in the upcoming polls, said Olaide.

Given the simmering Muslim-Christian tensions in many Nigerian cities - including Kaduna in 2002, and more recently, Jos - a spike in conflict related to the outcome of the presidential vote is not out of the question, especially given that many citizens blame their own political leaders for prolonging the crisis in the Middle Belt region.

At least 70 people were killed in political violence in the run-up to the current elections, according to Human Rights Watch, while more than 14,800 have allegedly been killed in inter-communal, political and sectarian violence in the past 12 years.

On 16 April voters will choose between President Goodluck Jonathan from the southern Niger delta region, and his two main rivals, both from the Muslim north - Muhammadu Buhari and Nuhu Ribadu.