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Tuesday, March 2, 1999 Published at 12:04 GMT

World: Africa

Analysis: Democracy returns

A PDP election rally: Millions of Nigerians turned out for a peaceful vote

By Lagos Correspondent Barnaby Phillips

It has been the most important political transition in Africa since the end of apartheid.

Nigeria elections
And, in the end, General Olusegun Obasanjo's victory in Nigeria's presidential elections was almost as much a formality as that of Nelson Mandela's in South Africa's elections five years ago.

The general, backed by the formidable political machine of the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, swept across Nigeria in a whirlwind five-day campaign.

John Simpson: "Ballot rigging may have been intended to make up for the low turnout"
His opponent, Chief Olu Falae, who was representing the All People's Party and the Alliance for Democracy, always seemed to be struggling to keep General Obasanjo within touching distance.

Financial muscle

Chief Falae's campaign was characterised by a succession of missed engagements, cancelled rallies and logistical mishaps. An eloquent economist, Chief Falae had more than enough intellectual clout to take on General Obasanjo. But he lacked financial muscle, and crucially, he lacked a sufficient spread of support amongst Nigeria's myriad ethnic and regional groups.

[ image: Queueing to vote: Much has changed in the past year]
Queueing to vote: Much has changed in the past year
Chief Falae was able to count on the solid support of his native Yoruba people in south-western Nigeria, but his impact in the rest of the country was patchy.

In contrast, General Obasanjo, who is also a Yoruba, is something of an enigma in Nigerian politics. The general has never been particularly popular amongst his own people, who perceive him to be too close to the Northern generals who have dominated Nigeria for the past 15 years.

But, with the backing of the PDP, he could rely on solid, if not passionate, support from most parts of the country.


The election, perhaps inevitably, was marked by cheating, which many foreign and local observers drew attention to.

[ image:  ]
But most observers shied away from questioning the validity of the election itself. Despite Chief Falae's rejection of the results, many argued that the margin of General Obasanjo's victory was sufficiently wide to guarantee the legitimacy of the result.

The notable exception was former American President, Jimmy Carter, who, somewhat ambiguously, said he wasn't able to make "an accurate judgement" about the election, because of the "wide disparity between the number of voters observed at the polling stations and the final results."

The Independent National Electoral Commission recorded over 28 million votes - amounting to an extraordinary, and suspicious, increase over the total number of votes in the annulled 1993 elections, when only 14 million were counted.

[ image: Keeping tally as the results came in]
Keeping tally as the results came in
But regardless of any doubts about the fairness of the electoral process, the international community is all too eager to welcome a democratic Nigeria back into the fold.

General Obasanjo will certainly find no shortage of goodwill from the United States, the United Kingdom and other major European powers. Whether this will translate into concrete commitments to writing off parts of Nigeria's crippling foreign debt is another issue.

General Obasanjo's supporters argue that he is the perfect man to unite the country at this difficult time in its history - a strong leader without tribal prejudices.

Keeping the military happy

And while his detractors say that an Obasanjo presidency will not provide a fresh start after the years of military misrule, others believe that it was never realistic to expect the soldiers to withdraw immediately from the scene.

[ image: General Abubakar signs in as president - he has pledged to sign out, too]
General Abubakar signs in as president - he has pledged to sign out, too
"There's no way the military will just disappear; they've been such a strong constituency for so many years, they won't just go away" says Father Matthew Kukkah of Nigeria's Catholic Secretariat.

Indeed, some Nigerians believe that if the country's fledgling democracy is to survive, it will be necessary to have a president with whom the military are comfortable.

General Obasanjo has indicated that he has no intention, once in office, of punishing soldiers accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

"There will be no witch-hunt" he said on the campaign trail, "I will do what is best for the whole country".

In the heat of the electoral battle, it is easy to lose sight of how much has changed in Nigeria, and how quickly.

Eight months ago, both General Obasanjo and Chief Falae, were in prison, detained by a brutal regime on what were almost certainly false charges.

Now they are trading political insults in the aftermath of a peaceful election in which many millions of Nigerians voted.

Democracy, albeit in a far from perfect form, has returned to Africa's most populous nation.

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