Nigeria out to prove something with presidential election

The morning radio presenter, silkily persuasive, had a lesson for his listeners as Nigerians prepared to elect a president: How to lose.

"Make sure to keep a smile on your face. Memorize lots of platitudes like 'Let the best man win' and 'It's not whether you win, it's how you play the game.' And know when to give up and accept that you were the loser, that you failed," he said in Abuja on Capital Radio's "Daybreak" program as gridlocked cars sat steaming in the early heat two days before Saturday's election.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has a tricky balancing act as leader of the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, in power since the end of military rule in 1999: How to not lose, yet still deliver the first credible election in Nigerian history.

This, in a country where the words "bad governance" roll off every voter's lips when asked why a nation so rich in oil still has so much poverty and such decrepit infrastructure.

Saturday's landmark election was peaceful and orderly compared with the violence and blatant fraud of previous Nigerian votes. European observers said most polling stations opened on time, with election materials present. A bombing was reported in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where antigovernment violence by Islamic militants is common, but no one was hurt.

With voting alliances split between the mainly Muslim north and mainly Christian south, Jonathan, a southern Christian, faced a substantial challenge from former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner.

But although the north has 38 million voters to the south's 35 million, analysts predict that Jonathan will win in the first round, with the Muslim vote split between several contenders. An Ipsos opinion poll in Saturday's This Day newspaper predicted that he would win 62% of the vote, and Buhari 24%.

For Nigeria, the election is about respect.

The most populous country in Africa, it is a major oil producer and has made a big contribution to United Nations peacekeeping missions on the continent. But Nigeria's blemished image, tainted as the nation is by corruption and flawed elections, remains as intractable as ever.

With African nations pressing for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, Nigeria wants to be a contender, but without a credible democracy and further steps to curb corruption, it would have little chance.

The state and presidential elections in 2007 were chaotic, violent and fraudulent. Armed gunmen invaded polling stations and made off with ballot boxes; ballot papers never turned up in some opposition areas. Some candidates paid poor people to vote for them. In some districts, the number of votes exceeded the number of voters.

In his most momentous move in nearly a year as president, Jonathan appointed a respected academic, Attahiru Jega, to head the Independent National Electoral Commission and let him do his job. In a stark change, 165 people who stole votes or threatened violence in parliamentary elections a week ago were arrested.

Nigerians sat up.

Ejike Ezeme, 36, a shopkeeper in Garaku village, in the central state of Nasarawa, east of the federal capital, voted Saturday for the first time in his life, convinced that this time his vote would count. He said cynics who didn't bother to register became upset that they couldn't vote.

"It's the best election so far for the country," said Ezeme, a Jonathan supporter. "In the past, we couldn't vote because there would be a riot or they would tell you, if you don't vote for this party you can just leave."

Democracy, Nigerian-style, is not always pretty. At a polling station in the nearby town of Lafia, the presiding electoral officer stood on a table waving her arms and screaming with rage and frustration. An election observer — who had offered a time-saving suggestion to process hundreds of people standing in the sweltering heat— shrieked back. The two traded insults while voters waited, sweat dripping.

The signs of decades-long government failure are ever-present in this country.

There's no power in many areas; instead, piles of battered Chinese generators wait at a mechanic's workshop for repair. With state school facilities in a poor state, private schools with names such as Wisdom Academy advertise educational miracles on every corner. A wheelbarrow pharmacy sells dubious medications, many of them fake, potentially deadly, concoctions.

Instead of buses, motorcycle taxis swarm like angry wasps amid traffic. Sometimes a family of four will pile on behind the driver. In Internet cafes, graduates who can't get work spend hours trawling for overseas jobs, while conducting three or four simultaneous chats on Facebook. Or they send out fraudulent emails to random addresses, promising what they crave themselves, windfall riches too good to be true.

Nigerians have a natural sense of drama, humor and flair. Conversations can be loud; arguments louder. When people speak, you imagine multiple exclamation marks. People don't just explain their problems; they expand into a theatrical lament, like evangelical preachers.

"All we need from the government of Nigeria is they come and help us out! We are not having jobs! Look at me, sitting in the sun doing phones! It's hot!" said Alice Atsu, 26, who sells phone airtime in the town of Mararaba, an Abuja suburb in Nasarawa state. She sat under a beach umbrella full of holes on a dusty corner, eating a charcoal-grilled yam with an oily onion relish.

"People are suffering in Nigeria! Look at me! The people at the head has money but they don't want to help the poor!"

Jonathan, never seen without his trademark black-brimmed hat, was an unlikely vice president who took office in May after the death of the president, Umaru Yar'Adua. The son of a poor farmer and canoe maker, he grew up with no shoes, but has three degrees, including a doctorate in zoology.

With many Nigerians disillusioned by 12 years of PDP rule, Jonathan's campaign advertising had to convince people that voting for him wasn't like voting for the same old party. His slogan promises "Fresh air in Nigeria," and he is pictured in front of a verdant field of green tulips that does not resemble any place in Nigeria.

"I like his name," Atsu said, smiling.

Retired civil servant Daniel Adione, 62, a Jonathan supporter, sitting in front of his wife's small shop in Mararaba, felt joyful relief that Saturday's election was going well. To him, Nigeria's shame was over.

"We are seeing what we never saw before," he said. "We've been hearing 'democracy, democracy' all these years. Now we are seeing it.

"People will be able to be proud, and not have to hide that they're Nigerians."

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