From the Editor’s Keyboard

Nigeria’s Political World

6 May 2007 at 21:51 | 1211 views

"Yar’Adua’s team calculate, probably correctly, that the West will come around as there’s no enthusiasm in Europe or the USA for allowing China and India free rein with Nigeria’s rich oil and gas reserves."

By Patrick Smith,(May 1,2007).

The Piano Bar,
Hilton Hotel,

There is no better perch than this sprawling hotel bar from which to watch Nigeria’s political world. For those of us journalists who can persuade our newspapers to stump up for five-star rooms and espressos at prices that rival New York’s Waldorf Hotel, the reward is access to the ever-changing gaggle of political players pitching camp on the bar’s comfortable sofas.

Governors, senators, representatives, their lawyers, their accountants, aggrieved candidates and civic activists all pass through the bar proselytising for their parties, distributing the latest ’open letters’ and gold-embossed calling cards.

This week has been frenetic. A week ago, the timorous head of the electoral commission, Maurice Iwu, crept into a press conference to announce that Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had won the presidential elections with about 26 million votes and a voter turnout of 58% of registered voters. The opposition response was speedy and categorical: this was Nigeria’s ’worst election ever’ and the malfeasance of Iwu and his commission had condemned Nigerians to a ’political slavery’ as bad as colonialism.

No room for understatement here. Into the fray came the election observers. The local Transition Monitoring Group dismissed the vote as a charade. In some ways this understates the enormity of the crime: this was a terribly violent parlour game, hundreds of people lost their lives in an election that would give the winner access to billions of dollars of oil money.

For once, the foreign election observers forgot their diplomatic default positions. Observer teams from the United States, the European Union and even the much-maligned Commonwealth found monumental maladministration of the polls, widespread fraud and thuggery spiralling out of control. No one was prepared to congratulate Yar’Adua on his landslide victory, simply because no one believed it.

Then came belated congratulatory notes from President Olusegun Obasanjo’s good friends in South Africa and Ghana, but still nothing from the rest of Africa or from Nigeria’s big trading partners in the West. There was, though, a lot of diplo-flannel from the United Nations Secretariat in New York and the Commonwealth in London.

Yar’Adua’s team calculate, probably correctly, that the West will come around as there’s no enthusiasm in Europe or the USA for allowing China and India free rein with Nigeria’s rich oil and gas reserves. Yet it will be a grudging acceptance of political realities, which means that the first six months of the new order will be bumpy and tetchy as Yar’Adua and Co. try to consolidate power.

This week Yar’Adua is off to win friends and influence people in East Africa and the Gulf. He’s not a big traveller, so many wonder about his diplomatic skills. It’s worth saying that between his disastrous press conference on 23 April and his more intimate press interviews two days later, he had already started winning over some of the foreign hacks.

He has had less success with the opposition who remain implacably hostile to proffered olive branches from the all-conquering People’s Democratic Party. The leading opposition presidential candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, saved his bitterest words for outgoing President Obasanjo. ’I never thought it would be this bad,’ Buhari told Africa Confidential from his suite in the Abuja Hilton. ’It makes it extremely difficult to look President Obasanjo in the face again and believe him anymore’.

’The whole world cannot be wrong,’ Buhari added. ’You can’t say all the international observers who came and saw are wrong.’ On May Day, Buhari, the other opposition leaders and civic activists start their campaign to overturn the election results. They want an interim administration to replace Obasanjo’s government after he steps down on 29 May. Under Nigeria’s constitution, the Senate President would head the government for three months and be followed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while new elections are organised.

Encouraged by recent shows of judicial independence, oppositionists believe the courts will throw out the election results and order a rerun. Although it’s hard to find anyone in Nigeria who takes the election results seriously, few believe that a new round of national elections is likely. While the press corps was comparing reactions with election imbroglios in Ukraine and Georgia, the political dealmaking had started elsewhere in the Abuja Hilton.

Two floors below Buhari’s suite at the Hilton, outgoing Minister for Abuja Nasir el-Rufai offers a very different world view. A cerebral live wire and blunt-speaking technocrat, El-Rufai was the uncrowned leader of the reform team in Obasanjo’s second term. Now El-Rufai appears at once embarrassed and frustrated by reactions to the elections. Yes, there are big problems with the electoral commission; yes, it needs and will get reform; and yes, some of the state government ≠ on both sides of the political divide ≠ got up to some appalling skullduggery.

The way to deal with that, El-Rufai insists, is not to talk about setting up interim governments, which would throw the country into chaos. Instead, oppositionists should present legitimate cases to the election tribunals, which, he believed, would act speedily and independently. Nigerians would not take to the streets for the sake of these elections, said El-Rufai. The reactions of Nigeria’s 150 million people could not be compared to those of Ukraine or Georgia ≠ there was a constitutional way to resolve this dispute.

On his own role in Yar’Adua’s emerging administration, El-Rufai was less expansive. Ideally, he wanted to return to private business and offer informal advice to the new President, but that’s unlikely to happen according to Abuja’s pundits. Whether he likes it or not, El-Rufai seems to be heading for a top job in the new government after 29 May. One certainty about a government with El-Rufai near the top is that it won’t be boring. Politicians in Abuja are going to be living in interesting times ≠ in the Nigerian sense of the word.

Patrick Smith
Africa Confidential

Photo: The world famous Patrick Smith.