Blaming Japan’s tsunami for the late arrival of voting material turned Nigeria’s parliamentary elections on April 2 – a serious drama by any measure – into a farce.
Cargo planes that should have delivered crucial results sheets two days earlier arrived in the country only at 9am on voting day.
“The flights were diverted to Japan instead to deliver emergency aid,” says Iorwuese Umenger, spokesperson for the elections commission.
When the elections were postponed to the following Monday, and the entire process by a week the next day, many feared a repeat of the previous polls in 2007, widely dubbed the worst in history so rife was the rigging.
But the joke of April 2 was a blessing in disguise. The extra week allowed the Independent National Electoral Commission, this time run by respected academic Professor Attahiru Jega, to fix many remaining problems and deliver elections that local and international observers say were the fairest since the end of military rule.
“It was a huge improvement,” says Dr Ochinya Ojiji, an analyst in the capital, Abuja. “People have the feeling their vote is going to count.”
Results were posted publicly, allowing party agents and independent observers to do a parallel count.
All 73 million registered voters were fingerprinted to secure the voters’ roll.
“This was the best election since democracy came in 1999,” says Nasir Abbas, a civil rights activist from Kaduna in Nigeria’s largely Muslim north.
And yet when Goodluck Jonathan (53) of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was announced the winner of the presidential elections on Monday night, riots erupted in Kaduna.
Churches were razed in several northern towns, some 200 people were killed and an estimated 40 000 displaced.
Supporters of General Muhammadu Buhari (68), Jonathan’s main rival and a northern Muslim, say victory was stolen from the former military ruler.
The more plausible cause of the violence is that many in the North, long mistrustful of the ruling party, simply don’t believe it is a Christian’s turn to rule.
When the PDP under Olusegun Obasanjo came to power with the end of military dictatorship in 1999, it agreed to rotate power every eight years to another of Nigeria’s six geographic zones.
Never again would Christians or Muslims, Yorubas or Hausas rule each other for too long. The spoils of Africa’s oil giant needed to be fairly shared.
The maths is simple. After eight years of Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian from the southwest, came Umaru Yar’Adua, a Fulani Muslim from northern Katsina state. When Yar’Adua died of a kidney ailment last year, three years into his eight-year term, Muslims believed his successor had to be a Muslim too.
Nigerians call it “zoning”. And in a country nearly torn apart by civil war once before, an orderly rotation of power seems to many to be a very good idea.
“Zoning means it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” says Ojiji. “Your people will have a turn to put forward a president.”
But instead of choosing a Muslim to replace Yar’Adua, the PDP decided to field Jonathan, despite firm opposition in many northern states.
“The party reneged on an undertaking,” says Professor Auwalu Yadudu of Bayero University in Kano. “Jonathan cannot be regarded as completing a northern presidential term.”
Mistrust and disillusionment in the north have long been growing. The party’s choice in 2007 of the ailing Yar’Adua bred suspicion.
“People are beginning to revolt,” says Khadija Gambo Hawaja, a prominent Hausa activist in Jos, where ethnic and religious strife has claimed thousands of lives in the past two years.
“In 2007 northerners felt Yar’Adua was incompetent to represent them. They (the PDP) knew he was not going to survive and had an agenda.”
Muslims relented when Jonathan, then deputy president, stepped up last year, but they hoped that zoning would hold for the 2011 elections.
“We reminded them that Jonathan became president due to the demise of Yar’Adua. It remains the time for the northerners; but nobody wanted to hear that. We are all conscious of the fact that Nigeria is for Christians and Muslims. It doesn’t make any sense that Nigeria is to be ruled by only Christians or Muslims; so if government is going to be run without us, we will break away.”
Further fuelling resentment in the north, which voted for Buhari and the opposition Congress for Progressive Change, is the belief that 12 years of democracy under the PDP have failed to solve Nigeria’s most serious problems.
“Before, we thought the military was the problem,” says Aondona Iortim (35), a taxi driver from Benue state. “But they handed power to the PDP and for 12 years we have not seen the dividends. They should have solved one big problem – electricity – but did not.”
And whereas cars speed along new highways in Abuja and young entrepreneurs flourish in the bustling metropolis of Lagos, further south many parts of the oil-rich Niger Delta have no roads or power and more than half of all Nigerians live below the poverty line.
So despite the best elections in decades, some believe two time bombs are ticking: the one is rampant poverty and unemployment among the youth, some of whom wreaked havoc over election results this week.
The other is the question of who will rule after Jonathan.
Northerners will demand a candidate of their choice return to the presidency, remembering this year’s break with the zoning rule. And in the southeast, Igbos say they have not ruled since 1966 and believe that their time has come.
Good luck, Jonathan.