Nigerian Elections: Fraud and Rifts Feared

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April 18, 2011
Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

International observers have deemed as credible incumbent Goodluck Jonathan's election victory in Nigeria's April 16 presidential elections. The question is whether the north, which mostly voted for Muhammadu Buhari, will accept the results. News agencies are reporting rioting in the north's largest cities, including Kano, Katsina, and Kaduna, and in the states of Adamawa, Niger, and Jigawa. Kano, the second largest city in the country, is under a curfew. A Red Cross official told Reuters on Monday that "a lot of people have been killed" in the north and that churches and mosques have been torched.

It was a concern about just this sort of violence that had prompted Nigeria's political powerbrokers to put in place a system for alternating the presidency between the Muslim north and Christian south every eight years. Jonathan had been vice president to the north's Umaru Yar'Adua, who died in May 2010. Initially, Jonathan indicated that he would finish out Yar'Adua's term, but not run in 2011, as it was still the north's turn. His decision to run, and his capture of the ruling party's presidential nomination, in effect ended zoning.

International observers are giving the polling high marks, but many of the voting totals do not add up. In at least one state, Jonathan's vote total exceeds that of the number of registered voters. It looks like rigging took place in the south and west of the country, already areas of strong Jonathan support. However, his huge vote ensured that he had an absolute majority of the votes, a constitutional requirement to avoid a run-off. If that is true, as in 2007, the riggers "over-egged the pudding," with preliminary vote totals showing that Jonathan received almost twice as many votes as Buhari.

The constitution also requires that the winning candidate win 25 percent of the vote in two-thirds of the states. Many in the north will find it implausible that Jonathan won the requisite percentage of the vote in the core, Muslim states. Mallam el-Rufai, minister for the Federal Capital Territory in former president Olusegun Obasanjo's cabinet, already said the elections were rigged. He told Reuters on Sunday, "In the Southwest and the North, the results have no relation to what happened at the polling units, and we will prove it in due course." Though neither Jonathan nor Buhari has yet to make a public statement, the latter has said that the announced results are "false" and that he has laid his complaints before the Electoral Commission.

Since the restoration of civilian government after a generation of military dictatorship, Nigeria has had three national elections, each worse than the previous. In 2007, there was little relationship between ballots cast and winners announced. President Jonathan committed himself to credible elections, and there was concern that a tainted result could further stoke tensions between Muslims and Christians in Africa's most populous nation. Conversely, successful elections would strengthen the hand of the new president in addressing Nigeria's daunting problems. Because of Nigeria's size and leadership role on the African continent, successful elections would boost the prestige of democracy and elections elsewhere. Failed elections in Nigeria could discourage democrats in the numerous other African countries that face elections this year.

While the presidential election results play out, Nigeria is preparing for another set of significant elections--this one for governors and other local officials. The gubernatorial elections will be a further indication of whether the country is bifurcating along regional and religious lines. It is the presidential elections that attract the greatest international attention; however, for Nigerian powerbrokers, the April 26 gubernatorial elections are of near equal importance because of the access governors enjoy to the country's oil and gas revenues and their leadership of patronage networks.