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What's next for Nigeria?

The international community should pay more attention to events in Nigeria, since the whole concept of African democracy is at risk

Published in: The Guardian (UK)

When we suggested to a senior western diplomat that Nigeria's recent elections were rigged, violent and seen as illegitimate by much of the Nigerian public, his response was brusque: "So what?"

Sadly the recent election, which was meant to be a step forward towards consolidating Nigeria's tenuous democracy after decades of abusive military rule, was not only brazenly rigged but also exceptionally violent, resulting in at least 300 election-related deaths. As Nigerians and the international community grapple with the scale of the government's contempt for their basic democratic rights, the question they should now be asking themselves with some urgency is: "What now?"

The polls have been roundly condemned by election-monitoring bodies. Observers from the European Union said that the whole process was "not credible" and the report they issued on the exercise was the most damning it had ever issued anywhere in the world. The US-based National Democratic Institute said that the process had "failed the Nigerian people".

The opposition in Nigeria is calling for the cancellation of the polls and a re-run. But President Olusegun Obasanjo is holding firm that his successor, Umaru Yar'Adua, was legitimately elected in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Nigeria's Independent Electoral Commission has agreed to a handful of re-runs. President Obasanjo has told aggrieved parties to go to court, and many opposition candidates are doing just that. The federal judiciary's recent assertions of independence provide some comfort to those who believe the ruling party and the electoral commission cheated them of votes. However, it is unlikely that the largest prize of all, the presidency, could fall to a legal challenge.

Nigeria's foreign partners must now decide how to link themselves to an administration that lacks the legitimacy the elections were meant to confer. They will console themselves that the new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, seems like a decent man. Even though Yar'Adua was the sitting governor of a state, Katsina, which saw electoral violence and vote-rigging, he was one of the few state governors to have avoided an indictment by Nigeria's anti-corruption watchdog. Some governments will be tempted to support the new Nigerian president based on the default position that a civilian president with no mandate is better than the alternatives: chaos or military rule.

But western and African governments alike should speak up about the government's blatant contempt for the rights of Nigerian citizens. They should demand immediate, serious and sustained reforms to regain some measure of the public trust that has been squandered not only by the gross irregularities that characterised last month's polls, but also by the Obasanjo administration's failure to do more to fight endemic corruption. G8 leaders meeting in Germany next month must recognise how Nigerian authorities have manifestly failed to deliver on the Millennium Development Goals, designed to improve the basic rights of people to health and education, and instead have shared the proceeds of record oil revenues among cronies and supporters.

The elections represented a big step backwards in the government's ostensible efforts to match economic reform with democratic openness and respect for basic rights. Reversing this trend and improving the human rights of Nigeria's 140m citizens can only start with a marked improvement in governance. Nigeria's western partners should not be idle bystanders. Instead they should be willing to condition non-humanitarian aid and security cooperation on clear evidence of reform, including the impartial investigation and prosecution of politicians suspected of subsidising recent election violence and committing serious electoral malpractice.

The government should bring criminal charges against ministers, governors and other officials implicated, and introduce legislation to strip governors of their immunity from prosecution, which has become an invitation to loot. Lastly, reforms should be put in place to make the country's electoral commission transparent and truly independent.

As Africa's most populated and second-richest country, Nigeria is a regional powerhouse that serves as a model for the continent. African nations have been largely silent on the shambles that was the election. Indeed, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa was the first to congratulate Yar'Adua on his victory. Others followed, including Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who congratulated Yar'Adua on "his landslide victory". If Nigeria's recent democratic failure passes without consequences from the international community, then the very idea of democracy in Africa is at serious risk.

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