Emerging democracy, or maybe a submerging one

Published May 27, 2007

In the months before the Nigerian elections, there was widespread apprehension about what might happen if the voting went badly.

Nigerians feared massive fraud, mostly because there is always fraud in a Nigerian election. The only question was would the fraud, by any coincidence, match the will of the voters? People worried there would be widespread violence if it did not.

They worried, too, that a result that lacked credibility would derail the moment when, for the first time in Nigeria's 47 years of independence, one civilian administration handed power to another.

They were right to worry: It was a sham. "In a number of places and a number of ways, the election process failed the Nigerian people, " said Madeleine Albright, a leading member of the observers sent by the National Democratic Institute.

Voting centers that never opened, and there were many of them, nevertheless reported 90 percent turnout. Some polling places opened, but ran out of ballots. At other locations, police watched as poll workers stuffed boxes with freshly inked ballots - all of them marked for the ruling People's Democratic Party. The final results - 24.6-million for the winner, 6.6-million and 2.6-million for the two runnersup - were announced hours before the counting had finished in key states.

"It was more than just a sham, " wrote Sam Nda Isaiah, publisher of Leadership. "It was brigandage organized and executed by the president himself."

But none of these irregularities will prevent the orderly transfer of power. On Tuesday, in a bit of political theater as closely scripted as the election itself, Olusegun Obasanjo, who has held power for eight years, will give the keys to the presidential villa to his hand-picked successor, Umaru Yar'Adua.

At that moment, Nigeria will look as though it has made an important step toward what political scientists call the "consolidation of democracy." But in reality it may have moved backward. A civilian administration can be as corrupt as the worst of Nigeria's famed military tyrants.

Eight years ago, Obasanjo (Oh-BAH-sahn-jo), a former political prisoner, was seen as the reformer Nigeria needed to overcome its reputation for uniformed autocracy. But Obasanjo liked his job so much he tried to rewrite the constitution to allow himself a third term. His own vice president, with much of the rest of the country behind him, objected vigorously. Rebuffed, Obasanjo broke with his vice president, who had aspirations of his own, and instead tapped Yar'Adua (Yar-AH-doo-ah), a mild-mannered Muslim from the north.

The vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a blocky, cheerless former customs agent, quit the president's party so he could run for president. Obasanjo couldn't permit a legitimate electoral contest, so he spent months trying to get Atiku (Ah-TEE-koo) indicted on corruption charges. In a system predicated on embezzlement, that's like a race car driver complaining his competitors are speeding.

They all steal from the public coffers and they have done so since the very first royalty was paid on the first gallon of high-grade Bonny Light crude was pumped from the swamps of the Niger delta. The best guess is that $380-billion has been siphoned by government officials at all levels.

Democracy was meant to improve things, but it hasn't. Life is worse now than it was when independence was declared in 1960. Clean water is a privilege of the rich. So is electricity. The best way to get rich is to go into politics. Or the oil business.

Months before the voting, one veteran observer had set an acceptable level of election violence at "under a few dozen deaths." In the end, there were nearly 300. The violence has subsided and the public has settled into bitter indifference. When you live on $1 a day, political debate is a luxury.

The United States, which buys 1.1-million barrels of oil a day from Nigeria, was "deeply troubled" by the quality of the election. But the State Department urged Nigeria to sort out the mess on its own. Yar'Adua congratulated elections officials for "excellent" performance. So that seems unlikely.

Adewale Adekunle, a Lagos journalist who hosts a popular morning talk show, wrote to me that "the U.S. and the European Union can help by showing real concern and commitment to help Nigeria by withholding support from these corrupt politicians who are only interested in looting the till.

"It's no use patting a government that has just pulled off one of history's greatest electoral robberies on the back and expecting it to commit itself to the genuine development of the nation."

Bill Duryea is the Times National Editor. He traveled to Nigeria in January with the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.