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Nigeria's 'slow' election reform

By Andrew Walker
BBC News website, Abuja

Even reforming elections in Nigeria will not fix democracy.

Umaru Yar'Adua
Electoral reform is necessary for the president's legitimacy

That is the opinion of pro-democracy activists in Nigeria's capital Abuja.

A year ago, Umaru Yar'Adua was elected in a poll that was condemned by international observers as being the worst Africa's most populous nation had held.

He immediately promised reform and set up a committee to recommend what should be done to ensure improvements.

Public hearings for the committee begin in May and it is expected to publish a report in August.

Huge problems

But previously unseen TV footage showing election violence during the gubernatorial elections last year has been given to the BBC.

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Footage of problems in Katsina State during the 2007 elections

It shows to some degree the scale of the problem facing those who want to see free and fair elections in Nigeria.

The footage shot in the northern state of Katsina, the president's home state, shows youths from a village who have not been able to vote, stopping an Inec minibus transporting ballot boxes and tearing them open, because they believe they have been stuffed with votes for the ruling People's Democratic Party.

It is not immediately clear how they know where the bus carrying the boxes has come from or if they really are illegitimate votes, but the chaos and frustration in the whooping screams of the youths show what reformers are up against.

Advisers to the presidency say there is a broad consensus among MPs that change is needed, and criticism of the reforms or the president is misplaced.

"I am confident the political class will deliver," says Akilu Indabawa, adviser to the vice president on electoral reform.

"Rotten"

But while democracy activists welcome the committee they say that the problems preventing a truly democratic election from being held are so difficult and numerous, any reform programme will struggle to produce results.


I'm sure the political class will deliver

Akilu Indabawa
Vice Presidential adviser

"The system is rotten. You have to dismantle the current structure and replace it with something more genuine and patriotic," says Awwal Rafsanjani, spokesman for the Transition Monitoring Group, the largest domestic election monitor.

The lack of an independent election regulator, the lack of significant political difference between parties, the involvement of the police, the opaque financing of parties and the huge gains awaiting those in office are all interconnected issues that must be addressed.

This would involve a complete change in the political culture of Nigeria.

The People's Democratic Party has vowed to rule the country for 150 years
Emma Ezeazu
Alliance for Credible Elections

At the same time activists are concerned that if nothing concrete is done before the next election there could be serious outbreaks of violence between thugs sponsored by politicians desperate to get hold of power.

As time goes on, they say, the incentive for those facing re-election to back reforms diminishes.

"Increasingly, narrow political interest will take over, thoughts will turn to how to win the next election," says Emma Ezeazu of the Alliance for Credible Elections.

"People forget that the People's Democratic Party vowed to rule this country for 150 years."

Any recommendations made by the panel, led by the former Chief Justice Mohammed Uwais, will need considerable reform of the constitution.

The question is will MPs who benefit from the system as it is, voluntarily vote to change it?

The last time that was tried, then-president Olusegun Obasanjo added a clause that would have allowed him to stand for election again.

Apathy

Democracy activists must also contend with another, seemingly immovable force - the apathy of Nigerian voters.

In local elections this year, turnout was very low. Observers said in Rivers State few people came out to vote.

But in some local government areas the Independent National Electoral Commission said 95% of those eligible voted.

"Why should anyone queue to vote when they know the result will be stolen," says Mr Rafsanjani.

One local chairman near Port Harcourt was re-elected despite being known to have opened fire on a crowd of people in 2006, killing one.

Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed several witnesses who saw the man shoot into a crowd of people complaining about the local electricity supply.

He has never been investigated by the police, and he is now the chairman-elect once more.

Stella Amadi of the Centre for Democracy and Development says that says a lot for the spirit of the Nigerian citizen.

"There is a dearth of indignation," she says.

"What does that say about the people in those communities? There are people, and NGOs and groups in a position to organise against this. It has to come from the people who need to resist this."

But the president's advisers say that the poor state of local elections should not be seen as a sign the president is not serious about reform.

"Its unfair to say that, because the president doesn't have any power to interfere with local politics," says Mobolaji Adebiyi, the president's political adviser.

"The panel has been constituted, lets wait and see what their recommendations are."



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