Call it voting, Nigerian style.
At several polling places, many children were allowed to cast ballots after presenting voter registration cards. At other sites, party agents stuffed ballot boxes with already thumb-printed forms as election monitors looked on helplessly.
And at Assumpta Cathedral in southeast Nigeria, a drama unfolded. Young men, described as party thugs, stormed the polling center and carted away the ballot box in a bus. Voters chased the thugs and torched the bus, but the men escaped with the ballot box.
Those voters might have considered themselves lucky. In Taraba state, men who stole ballot boxes came armed with daggers, guns and machetes.
On Monday, as Nigerian election officials continued to tabulate the results of the weekend’s gubernatorial and presidential elections, local and foreign election monitors began to present what they described as serious irregularities and what one called “many observed instances of obvious premeditated electoral manipulation.”
The federally funded, Washington-based International Republican Institute, which monitored elections in a third of Nigeria’s 36 states, called on the government to investigate and prosecute people who committed electoral fraud.
Monitors from the institute and other organizations were careful not to condemn the entire election, saying that polling was peaceful and procedures were followed in many regions.
But “the cumulative effect of [some] problems seriously compromised the integrity of the elections where they occurred and will most likely erode public confidence in the electoral process,” said the National Democratic Institute, another federally funded U.S. group whose board is composed of Democratic Party leaders.
With 22 million of Nigeria’s 60 million registered voters accounted for, President Olusegun Obasanjo appeared to be surging to victory with about 65% of the votes tallied. His nearest rival, former coup leader Muhammadu Buhari, had 25%.
Officials of Buhari’s All Nigeria People’s Party, however, called the results “a joke.” They said Obasanjo, whose election four years ago ended 15 years of brutal military rule, would be hard-pressed to explain some results. In Rivers state, where observers reported that little balloting had taken place, Obasanjo received about 99% of the vote.
“The results are an insult to the intelligence of the Nigerian voter,” said Festus Okoye, who heads the Transition Monitoring Group, which deployed 10,000 poll watchers across the country. “We do not believe [that] result has any form of legitimacy.”
Since Nigeria’s experiment with civilian rule began, U.S. officials and other world leaders have hoped that Africa’s most populous nation would set a good example for other troubled countries on the continent. But Okoye and other monitors said the counting process was largely fraudulent in the southeast and in the Niger Delta.
The sternest test of Nigeria’s young democracy, however, will come in the next few days. If Nigerians feel that the poll lacked legitimacy, opposition parties could unleash the wrath of their supporters. Since 1999, about 10,000 Nigerians have been killed in ethnic and religious violence.
Buhari, who has strong support among fellow Muslims in the north, last week called on Nigerians to take “mass action” to protect their vote.
On Monday, officials with Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party said opposition candidates who cried fraud were simply bad losers. PDP officials said there were also irregularities observed in many areas won by Buhari’s party.
One foreign election observer said vote-rigging was indeed carried out by the two main parties.
“They both knew that it was rig or be out-rigged,” she said.
But some foreign observers said any judgment about the election must take into account “Nigerian factors.”
“If [the election] produces a result that is generally acceptable, it will be a building block for the future,” said Margie Cook, an official with the United Nations Electoral Assistance Project who is in Nigeria to help election officials. “International standards remain aspirations that cannot be achieved all at once.”
In addition, many Nigerians have said that they do not have a monopoly on electoral fraud. They are quick to point out that the United States, which prides itself on being a model democracy, installed President Bush despite a disputed vote in Florida.
At a recent news conference called by a dozen opposition parties to protest electoral fraud, an opposition supporter declared to foreign journalists: “Tell Obasanjo that Nigeria is not Florida.”