KANO, 8 April 2011 (IRIN) - Following logistical delays, voting will finally get underway across most of Nigeria on 9 April marking the fourth elections to be held in Africa's most populous nation since it abandoned military dictatorship in 1999. Most Nigerian citizens and international observers desperately hope the polls will be an improvement on the last elections held in 2007, which were widely condemned as fraudulent and dangerous.
An explosion set off this evening, allegedly killing five people, at the election commission in the central town of Suleja, has already marred these hopes for many.
Fears that rival elites have contributed to delays as they seek to undermine fair polls, combined with logistical delays, had already cast a shadow over the elections.
On 7 April, the Nigerian electoral commission chief, Professor Attahiru Jega, addressed the nation to announce that polling in some constituencies across the country would not take place as planned on 9 April due to challenges related to ballot materials - the same problem that led Jega to halt the process last week. The postponed polls in these constituencies will now be held on 26 April, the same day as the state governorship elections.
With the elections deciding the composition of parliament and the state governments, not to mention who holds the presidency, the stakes are high and each of the three electoral contests is expected to be contentious.
"I think it's going to be free and fair this time," said Janet Kwange, 34, a social work student at the University of Jos who sells used clothes out of a plastic bag on the streets of the city, in the country's tense "Middle Belt" region. "In the past, people used to rig everything, but this time, the president has said this will not be tolerated."In remarks to a delegation of international observers on 7 April in the Nigerian capital Abuja, President Goodluck Jonathan said : "If we don't get it right, we can't lead anybody or call anybody to order when they miss the mark."
Many citizens say they have yet to experience the benefits of democratic rule, because their corrupt political leaders keep the country locked in a state of underdevelopment where only the richest reap the benefits of oil and other resources in the vast nation."The poor have remained poor," said Nasir Abbas, who heads a civil society group in Kaduna, a city in the north. In terms of the progress made since the end of military rule, he remained sceptical. "Democracy has brought some freedom of expression, and of the press, but if you look at infrastructure, zero has changed".
In a country that produces more oil and gas than any other in Africa, citizens struggle through frequent power cuts and fuel shortages, a reminder of the government's failure to deliver basic services to its people.
Despite the bleak situation, or perhaps because of it, Nigerians seem ready to turn out in droves to vote, with the hope of changing the status quo."If the elections are free, fair, and credible, then hope of changing the circumstances here becomes possible," says Professor A.H. Yadudu, a Harvard Law-educated professor of law at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria's second-largest metropolis.
A vociferous debate broke out at a tea stand in Kano, where citizens who had moved to the city debated the merits of the two most popular candidates, incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, and the opposition front-runner, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim with the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC).
Local papers, northern citizens, and elections observers alike expect densely populated Nigeria's "core North" region to vote heavily in favour of Buhari. In a country suffering from rampant corruption, Buhari is revered by many northerners for the tough stance he took on corruption during his two-year rule of Nigeria in the mid 1980s."I need Buhari, he is an important man!" shouted one man as he ate his breakfast. "Goodluck is a noble and educated man, and he is good to the poor," said an onlooker, Emmanuel Emeka from Enugu state in the east of the country. "I come from the east, that is why I love Goodluck," he later acknowledged.
Although Goodluck has the support of the powerful ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), discontent among northerners is one of several factors indicating that his victory in the April 16 polls is not guaranteed."It will be difficult for Jonathan to get the minimum 25 percent required in two-thirds of the 26 states," a Kano-based Nigerian journalist told IRIN, suggesting the PDP candidate's outright victory was not certain.
Regardless of their divergent political views, Nigerian voters across the country seem united on one issue: the need for credible polls. "We want to eliminate rigging completely," said Levi Gowon, a 55-year old civil servant in Jos. "After the elections we expect to see improvements," he added. "We need better health care, education, and access to water," he said. But Gowon admitted that, despite voting for the ruling party's candidate, he "cannot say that the government has been honest" in its leadership in recent years.
Hopes are still high that Nigerian can pull off better elections than any held so far in its 12 years of revived democratic rule. But there are still legitimate questions as to whether the polls will truly usher in a new era of governance, where the needs of everyday citizens are prioritized. Nigerians are still waiting to experience the so-called "dividends" of democracy, which many characterize as access to basic services and infrastructure, which they currently lack.
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