- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria

Peace Johnson keeps a close eye on her three young children playing nearby while selling snacks and other small items from a rickety wooden cabinet on the side of the road.

On a good day, Mrs. Johnson said she earns about $5, though some days she barely gets $2, not nearly enough to keep her and her children fed, clothed and sheltered.

Like many Nigerians, Mrs. Johnson would like to see her situation improve and expressed hope the coming elections will bring much-needed change. But she is not overly optimistic about real change in a country where an estimated 70 percent of the country’s 130 million people earn less than a dollar a day.

“I think the PDP are going to sweep the elections,” she said, referring to the People’s Democratic Party of incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo.

While polling in Nigeria is unreliable at best, many consider Mr. Obasanjo’s heir apparent, PDP candidate Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, to be the odds-on favorite to succeed the two-term leader, who came to power promising to fight corruption and improve the country’s woeful infrastructure with the help of its multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry.

Eight years after Mr. Obasanjo became president, many of Nigeria’s woes remain unaddressed. Political corruption runs rampant, as numerous governors and other elected officials — including Vice President Atiku Abubakar — are suspected of graft.

Though oil is plentiful, electricity is intermittent at best. Throughout this city at the center of the oil-rich delta, diesel-powered generators hum constantly outside the businesses and homes of those who can afford them.

Since the 1970s, Africa’s largest oil producer has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude oil from the southern Niger Delta states.

Despite the oil-exporting boom, most inhabitants of the Nigeria’s resource-rich south live in poverty, a condition that has given rise to armed militants, criminal gangs and even cult groups that have curtailed production by up to 25 percent over the past year.

And with presidential elections scheduled this Saturday, the future of Nigeria’s democracy could also be in jeopardy, said a recent report by an international human rights group. Local press reports estimate that more than 100 people have been killed since November in political violence attributed to armed gangs said to have been created and paid for by politicians seeking to stay in office.

“The Nigerian government should ensure that these elections mark a sharp departure from the violence and corruption that has marred the political system,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But it seems plain that this April, Nigerian voters will again face the threat of violence, intimidation and fraud.”

Problems foreseen

A violence-free presidential election seems unlikely because last week’s gubernatorial and state legislative elections were marred by at least 21 killings and numerous reports of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation.

Several opposition parties banded together and called for postponement of Saturday’s election and for last week’s results in gubernatorial races to be voided.

The government responded by assuring voters that balloting would continue as planned. Mr. Obasanjo “is committed to ensuring the elections go on as scheduled,” said Information Minister Frank Nweke yesterday.

If successful, the election would be the first time since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960 that one elected administration handed over authority to another. Since 1960, several military leaders have usurped authority through violent or bloodless coups.

Mr. Obasanjo’s two terms are the longest stretch of democratically elected rule in 47 years. A similar outcome this year could be in jeopardy if the authorities don’t prevent political intimidation, said Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a presidential candidate and former military leader who blames current leaders, particularly of the PDP, for recent violence.

In the past 15 months, more than 100 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped in or near the Niger River Delta. Many of the abductions have been attributed to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose leaders demand a more equitable distribution of oil wealth and have threatened to shut down all oil pumping in the region.

High unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation from oil and gas pollution, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity have angered the region’s youth, who took up arms supplied by political leaders — the very ones blamed for the continual degradation of the delta, Gen. Buhari said.

“Some of the politicians acquired weapons and gave it to these youth, who have since turned on them,” said Gen. Buhari, presidential candidate of the opposition All Nigerian Peoples Party, considered the main challenger to Mr. Yar’Adua.

PDP blamed

Gen. Buhari is not alone among Nigeria’s political elite in his condemnation of Mr. Obasanjo and PDP leaders, who hold a majority in both the upper and lower houses of Congress.

Mr. Abubakar, once considered the front-runner to replace Mr. Obasanjo, is a critic of the president, whose corruption committees called for the vice president to be barred from running after he was indicted on charges of stealing from state coffers.

Mr. Abubakar has since accused the president of thwarting his political ambitions because the vice president would not support Mr. Obasanjo’s efforts last year to amend the constitution so he could seek a third term this year.

This week, election officials announced that Mr. Abubakar’s name will appear on the ballot.

“If there is no Atiku in the presidential race, there will be no election,” the vice president warned last week. However, many Nigerians fear that militants will decide whether Nigeria votes this year.

In a recent interview with The Washington Times, a burly militant leader called “Commander Akoko” said his forces plan no attacks during the election but will keep a sharp watch for voting irregularities.

The militants are “prepared to die” in their fight against corrupt leaders who have purportedly stolen billions of dollars in oil revenue over the years, said Commander Akoko, who refused to divulge his real name. “It is better to die trying to change things, than leave them as they are,” he added.


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