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Nigeria’s ‘Godfather Syndrome’

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: April 16, 2007

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In Nigerian politics, charisma is much less important than an arsenal of thuggish campaign tactics. In the months preceding mid-April’s polls, political candidates have engineered the kidnapping of their opponents, would-be candidates have been assassinated, and thugs have been hired to intimidate rival campaign supporters. Such behavior is business-as-usual in a country run by political “godfathers,” (BBC) or political elites who sponsor candidates with the understanding that they will reap the financial benefits once the candidate takes office. “If anyone tries to attack me, my boys will unleash terror,” a nationally prominent opposition politician told Human Rights Watch.

As expected, Saturday's gubernatorial elections were marred by irregularities (Reuters), leading election observers to say that the vote should be rerun in four to six states. In the oil-rich Niger Delta states, many people were unable to vote and electoral officials were seen stuffing ballot boxes (AP). While the vote was largely peaceful, such widespread vote rigging does not bode well for the April 21 presidential elections.

If successful, this month’s elections will usher in the first transition between democratically elected leaders since Nigeria’s independence in 1960. But given all the preelection and gubernatorial election shenanigans, observers remain skeptical. An editorial in the New York Times urges President Olusegun Obasanjo to allow serious opposition candidates on the presidential ballot. Yet the president appears determined to do just the opposite: He declared this week that April 12 and 13 would be a public holiday, a move that delays a Supreme Court hearing to determine whether a key opposition presidential candidate can run (VOA). “The elections were programmed to fail,” said Jibrin Ibrahim of the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria at a March 9 panel at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But people will fight to prevent this.”

Leading the fight is Nigeria’s judiciary, which has shown admirable independence from Obasanjo’s administration. It ruled this week that the elections cannot be postponed (Nigerian Tribune), which some had rumored Obasanjo might attempt. Another battle in the courts over the right of Vice President Atiku Abubakar to run for president remains unresolved. The Independent National Electoral Commission has tried to disqualify him, and the issue now hangs in the balance in Nigeria’s Supreme Court. The electoral commission has been widely criticized for its mismanagement of the electoral process, and many fear that its incompetence and politicization will undermine this month’s polls. The strength of Nigeria’s institutions and the flaws of its federalist government structure are examined in a new Backgrounder.

Outside Nigeria, the presidential election’s results may reverberate widely. “Nigeria should be the central African question,” writes Robert I. Rotberg in a new Council Special Report on Nigeria. “No country’s fate is so decisive for the continent.” Oil-rich Nigeria is the continent’s most populous country, and if successful, its return to democracy could serve as a model for other African countries. Already the government has made substantial inroads in tackling corruption, but a growing insurgency (Economist) in the Niger Delta has oil executives, and the governments they supply, nervous.

Reducing conflict in the Niger Delta will be imperative for Nigeria’s new leader. The militant group MEND, profiled in this Backgrounder, has reduced national oil output by at least 25 percent by attacking oil pipelines and kidnapping foreign oil workers. Thus far, the Nigerian government has treated MEND as a security threat, not a political entity to negotiate with, but many experts argue it will have to change strategies to successfully deal with the group. This conference looks at trends in the Niger Delta and how the United States might support the Nigerian government’s effort to improve security in the region.

Presidential candidates (BBC) | ICG report: Nigeria’s Elections

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