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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 02:44 GMT 03:44 UK
High drama in Abuja

By Joseph Winter
BBC News Online correspondent in Abuja

Nigerian opposition protest
Opposition parties refuse to accept the result
What had seemed to be a straightforward statement of the obvious turned into a night of high drama at the election media centre in Abuja on Tuesday night.

We arrived at the Independent National Election Commission (Inec) at around 1730 local time (1630 GMT) as we had been told that the Inec chairman would shortly make the official declaration that President Olusegun Obasanjo had won the presidential election.

According to the Inec website, he already had an unassailable lead and had met the requirement of winning at least 25% of the votes in at least two-thirds of the 36 states.

But the electoral law states that the Inec chairman must declare the winner of an election to make it official.

A mere formality - or so we thought.

Some three hours later we were still waiting, along with more than 100 other journalists.

Opposition refusal

The media centre was becoming unbearably hot and sweaty and some journalists had decided to watch the announcement from the comfort of their air-conditioned hotel rooms instead.

I was sorely tempted to follow suit.

Suddenly, in burst a group of men wearing long gowns and "Hula" style hats typical of northern Nigerians.

They started handing out press statements from the main opposition party, the All Nigeria People's Party, stating that they and other parties had refused to sign the official declaration of the results, which named Mr Obasanjo as the winner.

Now we knew the reason for the delay - the party representatives had been meeting with Inec chairman Abel Guobadia and his officials in the next-door building.

He had been trying to persuade them to sign the declaration, while they refused.
Nigerian voters celebrating
Nigerians are being urged not to break the law

Then, the ANPP officials and representatives of several other opposition parties went further and completely hijacked what had been supposed to be an Inec press conference.

They walked up onto the stage and started reading out their prepared statement into the microphones arranged on the table.

They rejected the official results, saying there had been "no election".

"There was a premeditated plan to have the PDP (Mr Obasanjo's party) returned at all costs," they said.

"The mandate of the people was not given to anyone at this election."

The room which had been so stuffy and lethargic just minutes before suddenly rippled with excitement.

I asked ANPP spokesman Ibrahim Modibo whether this dramatic move would not threaten Nigeria's young democracy.

"We don't want democracy built on fraud. Any house built on fraud will collapse," he said

"What are you telling your supporters to do?" I asked.

"They know what to do," he replied.

Official declaration

I asked if there was a danger that this would lead to violence.

"If there is any violence, it is the fault of Inec and the government for rigging the election," he said.

Ominous stuff.

Shortly afterwards, I noticed that a group of policemen armed with machine guns had entered the room, while the opposition officials had disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

Then the journalists started leaving the room.

After a while, I followed them, only to hear that the official declaration of the results had been made in the building next door.
The mandate of the people was not given to anyone at this election
Opposition statement

But then everybody started returning to the media centre.

"They're going to make the declaration again because there weren't enough media there the first time," someone said.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, in trooped Mr Guobadia, flanked by his officials and several more armed security agents.

There was now a ring of policemen and soldiers around the edge of the media centre, all holding machine guns.

In a country with a history of military coups, I did not feel reassured.

First Inec secretary Hakim Baba Ahmed spoke.

"We were on our way here earlier, but we were beaten to it," he said.

They certainly had been.

Government shaken

"Inec chairman Abel Guobadia will now make this statement which is so central to democracy," he added.

Mr Guobadia said: "The presidential election result about to be declared is a true reflection of the will of the Nigerian electorate."

He urged anyone who had complaints about the poll to lodge them with the election tribunals, as he has been saying all along.

Then came the all-important statement.

"Chief Olusegun Obasanjo is hereby declared to be the winner of the elections," said Mr Guobadia.

The government had clearly been shaken by the audacity of the opposition parties and tried to drown out their message.

As soon as Mr Guobadia left the media centre, Information Minister Jerry Gana appeared, flanked by the PDP presidential polling agents.

He declared that the election had been peaceful, free and fair and also enjoined aggrieved parties to take their complaints to the courts.

"I urge Nigerians not to take the law into their own hands," he said.

While the opposition politicians had read a part of the observer report from the United States-based International Republican Institute, which pointed to irregularities, Mr Gana read a passage from the Commonwealth election group which praised the election.
Nigerian Information Minister Jerry Gana
The government says the elections were fair

As Mr Gana was speaking, somebody slipped him a note, saying that President Obasanjo was making his address to the nation at 2200 local time - about 10 minutes later.

I understand that this address had been pre-recorded some time earlier, but it could not be broadcast until he had officially been declared the winner.

Mr Gana hurriedly ended his impromptu press conference and we all rushed over to the television screens to hear the president speak.

Mr Obasanjo said he was "humbled" and "overwhelmed by the size of his new mandate".

He then congratulated the governors from his party who had won their elections and seemed to gloat a little by referring to the PDP as "Africa's greatest party".

Finally, he turned to those who dispute his election victory.

"Politicians should show gallantry and good nature in defeat.

"Let all of us contestants join hands in the task of rebuilding and developing Nigeria," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Obasanjo's campaign, Akin Osuntokun, said that he did not think there would be any trouble.

"If the results did not conform to the votes, there would have been a spontaneous reaction. Nigerians are not sheep who need to be incited."

All we can do now is wait and see how opposition supporters, especially in the ANPP's northern strongholds, react to Tuesday night's dramatic intervention by their party leaders.


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