Nigeria's elections—for governors on 14th April, and for the country's president on the 21st—were heralded by President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is stepping down after two terms, as the first in the country’s history to have successfully transferred power from one civilian head of state to another. But voting was so undermined by open displays of rigging, intimidation and violence by the ruling People's Democratic party (PDP) and its armed thugs that the elections’ real significance may be to illustrate just how far Nigeria is from accountable, democratic government.

Official results show a stunning success for the PDP. The party's presidential candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, received 70 per cent of the vote, according to the electoral commission, and its gubernatorial candidates won at least 29 of Nigeria's 36 states. But condemnation of the polls has been unanimous. EU observers said they fell “far short of basic international and regional standards,” and the US pronounced itself “deeply troubled.” More than 300 Nigerians lost their lives in election-related violence.

To judge by our experience, observing the polls in four Nigerian states, these conclusions understate the situation. In many places there was no voting at all, in either election. In many rural areas we visited, polling stations did not open because election staff removed ballot boxes and voting papers to government offices or the homes of ruling party officials, in order to fabricate results in secret.

In Gombe town, voting started at around three in the afternoon because of the late arrival of ballot papers from the capital, and ended just three hours later. Hundreds of angry voters were turned away and told that ballot papers had run out. Electoral officers complained to observers that they had not been given enough. Later, at the collation centre, polling stations that had received less than 400 ballot papers recorded over 800 votes cast. And at the state electoral office the following day, turnout was officially declared at over 90 per cent, with the ruling PDP taking nearly all votes in every area.

These elections were meant to mark a milestone in Nigeria’s history, after elections in 1999 and 2003 that were plagued with vote-rigging, violence and human rights abuses. But they failed to meet the already-low expectations of Nigerians, and anger and frustration at the vote-rigging resulted in several incidents of violence. In Katsina state, home to president-elect Yar’Adua as well as opposition candidate and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, government buildings and the homes of PDP supporters were burnt down. In several other states, frustrated voters burnt electoral offices and clashed with police and PDP supporters. Even before the polls opened on Saturday, there was an attempt in the capital Abuja to crash a truck laden with gas cylinders into the headquarters of the independent national electoral commission.

The reasons for this desperate frustration run deep. These elections stand as only the latest example of the systemic patterns of corruption and violence that have characterised President Obasanjo’s eight-year rule. Nigerians are poorer today than they were at independence in 1960. Rising oil prices have given the government unprecedented wealth and opportunities for graft. Taking into account the antics of state and local governments, Obasanjo has presided over what is perhaps the largest theft of public resources in Africa’s post-independence history. As politicians fight among themselves for the right to represent the ruling party and thus gain a piece of the “national cake,” ordinary Nigerians are denied basic health and education services.

In the northeast state of Gombe, for example, where we witnessed the presidential poll, local activists say that over 100 people have died in political violence over the last three years, as criminal gangs linked to the state government have spiralled out of control, robbing and raping without any response from the police or the federal government. It is a similar story elsewhere, where politics has been subsumed in patterns of corruption, abuse and outright criminality. The dire situation in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger delta, for instance, was greatly exacerbated by the efforts of politicians to arm and employ criminal gangs to help them secure election in the badly flawed polls of 2003.

The opposition Action Congress (AC) and All Nigeria People’s party (ANPP) had discussed boycotting the polls, but both contested in the end. Part of their reasoning was that only by standing in the elections would they be able to contest the pre-ordained results in court. On the evidence of this weekend, they will have a very good case, and the outcome of those challenges could dim the celebratory attitude of the PDP. In the run-up to the polls, the judiciary showed itself to be independent, ordering the electoral commission to reinstate opposition candidates on the ballot, including the vice-president, whom the government had expended enormous efforts to exclude. The wide array of court cases now under way will make life difficult for the PDP, and may hold some embarrassing surprises.

Britain, along with the UN and the EU, helped finance these elections. And if the conduct of the elections is an insult to Nigerians, it is also an insult to those who tried to help in good faith. But Nigeria’s foreign partners are not without responsibility in helping to chart a way out of this debacle. Over the past eight years, allies like the US and Britain have remained largely silent in the face of massive human rights abuses, corruption and the rigging of elections. While Nigeria is far less susceptible to western pressure than some of its donor-dependent neighbours, the opinions of the international community still carry weight. Nigeria’s foreign partners should insist that the next government act urgently to repair the flawed institutions of governance that gave rise to the deplorable spectacle of these elections. The first step must be to mobilise pressure on the Nigerian government to respect all court judgements on the elections, no matter how unfavourable.