The gap between British policy in Africa and the continent's harsh realities was once again on display recently when the British high commissioner to Nigeria said in Abuja, "so far I think the progress we are making towards the elections in April is pretty good." Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the local press more than 50 people have already reportedly lost their lives in pre-election violence in the run up to April polls, and hundreds have been injured. If this level of violence continues over the next two months, the price of a "pretty good" election if measured in lives, will turn out to be very high indeed.

On April 14 and 21, Nigerians will choose a new president, new governors of Nigeria's 36 states and new members of their state and national assemblies. Current president, Olusegun Obasanjo is stepping down after serving two terms since the end of military rule in 1999.

Nigeria, the world's sixth largest oil producer, remains mired in a mess of corruption, crime and violence. In spite of its massive oil wealth, most Nigerians continue to experience crippling poverty, an ever-deteriorating standard of living and serious human rights problems. Since independence, government officials estimate that $380 billion has been lost to corruption and waste. Meanwhile 90% of Nigeria's 140 million citizens live on less than two dollars a day and some 1 million Nigerian children die every year before reaching the age of five; most of them succumb to diseases that are easily preventable or treatable at low cost.

Corruption has become a way of life that has bred a political system founded on money and violence which rewards loyalty with impunity and the opportunity for graft. This system has led to widespread abuses of civil and political rights, such as police torture, the use of violence for political ends coupled with impunity for the perpetrators and most importantly the right to freely elect Nigeria's leaders. Corruption has also hobbled the state's ability to deliver even the minimum social and economic rights, such as basic health care and primary education, to its citizens.

Instead of offering solutions, in many areas the election campaigns so far are fuelling more violence and making the lives of ordinary Nigerians even worse. For example, recently in the south-western town of Akure four people were killed when two opposing gangs within the ruling party settled their differences with automatic weapons and machetes. In the south-eastern state of Anambra, rival gangs are fighting over the chance to earn money from powerful politicians as hired thugs during the election. These fights have claimed at least seven lives in the last two weeks. And a spate of assassinations and clashes between armed gangs during the ruling People's Democratic Party's (PDP) party primaries in December and January have come and gone without any of the masterminds being brought to book.

If the political stakes in the April contest are high, the financial rewards of office are even higher. Since 1999, soaring oil prices have brought unprecedented wealth to the Nigerian government. Because state governors personally receive allocations for their states of hundreds of millions of dollars each year, powerful politicians vying for office in many gubernatorial races across the country are physically fighting each other for the very high rewards.

Powerful and rich "sponsors" provide large sums of money as "investments" for many elections and they expect "returns" from the winning candidate in the form of financial and political favours once in office. This system has come to be known in Nigerian politics as "godfatherism". Godfathers also control armed gangs, which they deploy to intimidate opponents and provide "security" for their favoured candidates. It is these militias who often end up fighting proxy battles on behalf of their bosses. These gangs contribute to the denial of Nigerians' democratic rights but also to the already high levels of criminality and insecurity in areas where they are deployed.

If the godfathers and their gangs had less to gain from getting their preferred stooges into office, then perhaps they would have less to fight for. It may appear that the current administration is waging a vigorous campaign against corruption. The government's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recently produced a list of 135 candidates whom it described as "unfit for public office". However, there are some notable omissions and a disturbing correlation between those on the list and those who opposed President's Obasanjo's attempt last year to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term.

Whoever becomes the next president of Nigeria will have a herculean challenge to grapple with the pervasive culture of impunity, ensure better respect for human rights and nurture a change in the country's political culture. But if Nigerians are even to enjoy the possibility of such a change, the country must first avoid a conflagration at the polls in April.

All branches of government, but most notably the presidency, must take serious, sustained and impartial steps to stem the tide of violence and stop the number of election-related casualties from reaching triple figures. The police must play a more active and impartial role in investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of election-related violence: in many cases, the culprits are well known. Governors should be stripped of the immunity from prosecution that they currently enjoy while in office so that those who use violence to stay in office cannot hide form the law. But most importantly, federal institutions such as the Independent National Electoral Commission and the EFCC must show themselves to be truly free from political interference.

Mr Grozny says that the international community is watching Nigeria closely, but it must do more than watch. Foreign powers were instrumental in supporting Obasanjo's rise to power and if his government fails to ensure a smooth and genuinely democratic transition, it will in part be their failure too. Nigeria's international partners should put all possible pressure on the Nigerian government to turn this increasingly violent situation into a credible opportunity for Nigerians to choose their leaders. And if a dramatic improvement is not forthcoming, the international community should be extremely wary of any actions that might lend legitimacy to a process that, in its current form, is likely to end with the rights of ordinary Nigerians being trampled underfoot.