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Personalities overshadow policy in Nigeria polls

Voters will cast ballots Saturday on who should occupy seats in the country’s National Assembly, positions worth more than $1 million in salaries and perks,…

Voters will cast ballots Saturday on who should occupy seats in the country’s National Assembly, positions worth more than $1 million in salaries and perks, not counting the power to subvert the billions of dollars in oil revenues the country earns each year. But whether insecurity will force voters to abandon the polls or those votes will count in a nation where thuggery accompanies elections remains to be unseen.

Politicians “are not really there to serve the people; they want to serve themselves,” said Idowu Johnson, a political science lecturer at the University of Ibadan. “The monetary attachments to the positions are why they want to kill themselves for it … by any means. They are willing to sacrifice their own children.”

Saturday’s election is the start of three weeks of polls in Africa’s most populous nation, home to 150 million people. An estimated 73.5 million voters also will pick a president for the nation and cast ballots in local elections.

President Goodluck Jonathan and the head of the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission have promised to provide a free and fair election in a country where coups and military rulers served as the norm for decades. That promise comes against a history of flawed polls marred by violence and ballot box stuffing since the nation became a democracy in 1999.

“Twelve years ago, our dear country Nigeria returned to democratic rule and we began a journey that many expected by now would have produced a stable democratic system in which peaceful, free, fair and credible elections are routine and taken for granted,” election chairman Attahiru Jega said Friday. “Unfortunately, this is still not the case and Nigerians are yet to reap the dividends of democracy.”

Election officials promise police and security agents will be out in force Saturday, stopping the unaccredited from driving or leaving their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the federal government closed all land borders to travelers at noon Friday, promising to reopen them Sunday morning.

At each of the country’s roughly 120,000 poll stations, workers plan to mark voters’ fingers with indelible ink and have them place their ballots in see-through containers. But voters will have to verify their registration in the morning, then wait to the early afternoon to cast their ballot. Some worry that delay will see some abandon the process, especially if gunfire or fighting breaks out. At least 50 people have died already in election-related violence across the country, Human Rights Watch has said.

That violence has been common in recent weeks in Ibadan, a city about 90 miles (150 kilometers) inland from Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos. Home to an estimated 1.3 million people, Ibadan remains a major transit and trade point in Nigeria, as well as an ancestral home to the Yoruba tribe spread throughout the region.

Encouraged by rival politicians in Oyo state, members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers have fought in the streets, apparently. But these politicians aren’t even from the opposition. Johnson said the fighting comes from within the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which holds both the local governorship and the presidency.

The Action Congress of Nigeria, the nation’s strongest opposition party, also wants to claim the state as part of its growing power in the country’s southwest. However, that is hard to see, as billboards with political ads throughout Ibadan appeared to have been slashed by knives.

Ayodele Folami, a local election official, said ballots and results sheets should be distributed through the city and state overnight. He discounted the recent violence as an “intra-union fight.”

“Their violence for now has nothing to do with” election staff, Folami said. Still, the country’s National Emergency Management Agency named Oyo state as one of 12 states where violence likely would occur. And many already know who to blame if it does happen. “It is the politicians who don’t want this to work,” Johnson said.

Associated Press