#Nigeriadecides: Photos from the April 16 Presidential vote

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KANO, Nigeria–A day after Nigerians turned out for the third Saturday this month to vote in polls that many middle-aged and older voters told me were the best they had ever witnessed in their lifetimes, the country’s 73+ million voters are appearing to have split themselves along familiar lines: the mainly Muslim north largely voted for opposition favorite and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, while the mostly Christian south backed the “accidental incumbent” Goodluck Jonthan.

Having hopped a shared taxi this morning up north to Kano, the old Sahel trading town turned Nigeria’s second largest megacity, I’m now at work on a post from yesterday on what I saw in Kaduna–another northern city where hundreds of young men chanting “we need change!” celebrated in the streets after their candidate, Buhari, was declared the winner at a key polling station in the city (more to come shortly on that story).

Until then, I’m posting a few photos I took from Saturday’s presidential vote from Kaduna, Nigeria. Stay tuned for more photos from yesterday along with my longer post on the view from the ground.

* “#Nigeriadecides” is a popular Twitter hashtag that’s handy to check out if you’re following this year’s critical Naija polls.

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Economic Disparities & Irresponsible Leaders

I wrote this piece about a week ago when I was still in the Nigerian capital but am just posting it now:

ABUJA, Nigeria–It’s hard not to notice the intense extremes in Nigeria, a powerhouse nation on the continent in every sense of the word.

Extraordinarily wealthy elites who are profiting from the country’s vast natural resources through politics, business and corruption. Expatriate oil industry execs and PR staff and business analysts taking their fill and managing to live like royalty while they’re at it. Everyday Nigerians hustling hard to get by in a land of daily power cuts, largely irresponsible political leaders, and armed militants and threatening political henchmen (aka “Godfathers”).

As an outsider seeing Nigeria for the first time, these contrasting and coexisting realities are starkly apparent to me. For Nigerians struggling to make a living for their families, they are more than an unfortunate phenomenon; they are an entrenched, often crippling system.

Making small talk with as he drove me in his taxi yesterday was Banji, a devout Christian, who brought up the fact that his country is very wealthy, but that only a small fraction of the 150 million plus citizens are benefiting from this wealth. “There is enough for us all to live in houses,” he said. It’s a reasonable enough expectation in a country that produces more oil and gas than any other nation on the continent, and where governors in the oil-rich Delta states oversee annual budgets larger than those of several West African countries. Instead, millions of Nigerians live in squalor, and the average citizens dies at age 48 after receiving just five years of education during his or her life (see the link to more UN development stats below).

It seems obvious to everyday Nigerians who exactly is largely responsible for the status quo, in which the citizens in the country boasting Africa’s largest economy are among the poorest on the continent (take a glance at the United Nations Development Program’s human development stats for disturbing confirmation of this).

“Our leaders are so irresponsible,” said 32-year old Blessing Usie, who works for an international civil society rights group in Abuja. Usie said that some of her girlfriends had dated the (married) senators who live lush lives in the Nigerian capital and had recounted stories of the presents–new houses, plane tickets, wads of cash–they had received from the elected officials. She did not find these stories amusing in the slightest and said that it is horrifying to her that her country’s leaders could be so disrespectful of their fellow people who elected them.

Usie shared a similar view to Banji the cab driver. “Nigerians are not looking for a perfect society,” she explained. “They are just looking for basic things. Roads, schools, clean water,” she said, recalling the case of the popular governor of Lagos state, home to the country’s booming commercial capital. Usie says that Governor Babatunde Fashola

A man pushes a cart of petrol jerrycans on a street in Kano, Nigeria, past posters of incumbent presidential candidate Goodluck Jonathan, last week in Kano (Maggie Fick).

is extremely well-liked because he has delivered noticeable changes to Lagosians during his tenure; she noted that Nigerians are aware that Governor Fashola may be taking a little bit for himself from the state coffers, but given how much he has accomplished, no one has a problem with his slightly corrupt practice.

This view, which I heard echoed by several other people in Abuja over the past days, may be sadly indicative of the expectations Nigerians have for their leaders. It doesn’t seem to me that Nigerians are asking for too much from their leaders; they would like the most basic of services and decencies that they ought to be awarded as citizens, and are understanding of the reality here that their government can and will steal hand over fist from the country’s massive revenues. Despite the setbacks last weekend that led the three-stage elections to be delayed by one week, Nigerians are still hopeful that these elections could be different than the fraudulent polls in recent history. What will happen after these elections, when many of the current leaders are returned to power for yet another chance to run roughshod over their country’s vast resources, may unfortunately not mark a change from the discouraging status quo.

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Elex and Security

JOS, Nigeria–Geoffrey York of The Globe and Mail had an interesting report the other day on the severe security measures put in place across Nigeria last Saturday for the parliamentary polls. York wrote that “nearly  250,000 gun-wielding soldier” were deployed to “shut down every street in [Nigeria's] chaotically gridlocked cities,” with military checkpoints preventing any movement in vehicles on elections day.

The combined effect of the security procedures imposed by the military and assorted security branches was an atmosphere that resembled a state of emergency. Land borders were closed. Attack helicopters patrolled over some cities. Silence filled the space left when the streets were emptied of honking cars and motorcycles.

This was indeed the case in Jos, the central Nigerian city where I reported from last Saturday. As I moved about town to visit polling stations in an aged blue station wagon with a handmade paper sign reading “PRESS” with a Nigerian journalist and two other international reporters, we were stopped repeatedly by professional and polite Nigerian soldiers manning checkpoints made of tires and wood.

The conduct of the (rumored to be very well-paid) Nigerian officers was impressive. At the same time, the sheer fact that such a state of lockdown was necessary to accomplish a more credible vote than Nigeria has experienced in recent history is worth noting. As York wrote, the harsh tactics were intended to prevent political “thuggery”–a buzzword in the Nigerian press–such as voting at multiple polling stations, which has been a problem in the three elections the country has held since it abandoned military rule in 1999.

Even after the “movement restriction” was lifted at 4pm–when polls were set to close, which did not happen at many stations given the late start of voting–the city of Jos remained quite, as if still in slumber. Few “food is ready” local restaurants were open around dinnertime, and the Lebanese restaurant I ate at practically pushed me and my fellow diners out the door by 8:30 pm so that they could close early and get home safe.

It is no doubt a significant accomplishment for Nigeria that the first round of elections this month have passed relatively peacefully (save a handful of deadly incidents in different areas of the country) and without the myriad reports of fraud and voter disenfranchisement as in the 2007 polls. Observer groups including the National Democratic Institute also issued generally positive statements about the credibility of the vote.

But if the 2011 parliamentary, presidential, and state governorship polls do succeed in marking a break from the past in Nigeria’s ongoing–some say imperiled–democratic transition, then the 2015 ought not have to require such stringent “lockdown” measures. Of course, I am speaking too soon in racing ahead to consider the 2015 vote, as the most contentious polls are still ahead: the presidential vote this Saturday, and the state governorship vote on April 26. See Alex Thurston’s analysis of what the still-trickling-in parliamentary vote results might mean for the two looming votes.

A solider stands on the roadside near a military checkpoint in Jos (unfortunately none of the soldiers I encountered were interested in having their photos “snapped,” so I took this one stealthily from the car–hence the poor photo!)

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A rocky but enthusiastic start: Elections get underway in Nigeria

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JOS, Nigeria–If you read yesterday’s coverage (including my own forthcoming articles for CS Monitor and The National) of the (postponed) kick-off of Nigeria’s three-week long elections process, you will read of chaos and violence.

There was, after all, logistical confusion at some polling sites throughout the day and reportedly across the country. I witnessed somewhat hectic, albeit transparent, counting underway at multiple vote “collation centers” in the central Nigerian town of Jos. There was an explosion on Saturday at a polling station in the tense northern town of Maiduguri. On the eve of the vote, a bomb blast at an electoral office near the capital, Abuja, killed at least 8 elections workers and injured more than two dozen people, many of them National Youth Corps volunteers.

But in Jos–a city oft cast as the “epicenter” of brutal intercommunal violence over the past decade that consistently takes on a sectarian nature–the mood at the polling stations I visited was not only calm and relatively orderly. It was jubilant. I witnessed on two occasions voters excitedly running to get in line to vote, flashing thumbs up signs at Nigerian and international journalists, and enduring scorching sun throughout a practically day-long voting process (given that voters first had to be verified as registered through a accreditation process in the morning before casting their votes from 12:30 on–the start time of the voting was delayed in several stations I visited).

In a place where politics and government officials have so often been directly linked to terrible local violence and suffering, voters in Jos know the stakes of these polls. Yesterday, many voters here seemed to be eager to participate in a process which they view as much more likely to be free and fair than any of the other essentially sham elections held in Nigeria since 1999, when military rule ended.

“I came here to get in line right after morning prayers,” said Danjuma Bawa, 32, a secondary school math teacher, telling me that “it’s a better process this time” and that he thinks his vote will count this time.

I share the optimism of voters that I met in thinking that the 2011 elections will be more peaceful and credible than the three other polls held during Nigeria’s recent “democratic” history. However, based on the conversations I have had with Jos residents to date, I am not at all certain that fair elections will result in a fundamentally changed dynamic in the Middle Belt–one that could prevent more violence in the months and years to come.

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Straight talk on democracy and development in Nigeria

KANO, Nigeria–Nigerian voters have high hopes for this month’s elections, after two delays due to logistical hurdles resulted in postponed polls finally getting off to a rocky start yesterday. The international community is looking to Nigeria, an economic and diplomatic leader on the African continent, to hold its first legitimate and peaceful elections since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999, after years of military dictatorship.

Everyday Nigerians want to see the 2011 elections usher in a new kind of government, one that is responsible and representative of the needs of its citizenry instead of corrupt and ruled by elite interests.

Aondona Aortim, 35, is a taxi driver from Nigeria’s tense “Middle Belt” region, where deadly intercommunal violence over land and resource issues has taken on an ethnic and religious aspect over the past decade.

Aortim, a father of two, recently spoke to me about the challenges everyday citizens and voters like him face on a daily basis. Like many Nigerians, Aortim hopes that this year’s polls will enable him and his fellow citizens to begin enjoying the “dividends of democracy” that they have been deprived of to date under the current political system in Africa’s most populous nation.

On a drive from the northern trading center of Kano to Jos, the capital of Plateau state in the Middle Belt, Aortim dissected the current challenges impeding development and democracy in his country:

“What Nigerian needs is infrastructure and development, because we have nothing. If you go around the country, you will see at least one industry that each area can do.

In my state [called Benue], there are fruits in large quantites, there are hectares of mangoes and oranges. But these things are perishable, if you don’t get someone to patronize you, to buy your goods, they will rot. So we have to move them [to other states to seel], but sometime you have an accident, sometimes your car breaks down on the way.

If we had reliable electricity then things could be produce locally. We could make fruit juice locally, use the raw material in our state. People would get jobs and the economy would keep moving. But the way the economy is down now, farmers are not being patronized.

The lack of electricity is a big problem for all Nigerians. That is why we don’t have industries, that is why you see people with generators.

NEPA [the National Electric Power Authority] is not reliable at all, if you rely on it you will have no business.

If you want to set up a barber shop, you have to get a generator. The cheapest one is 15,000 Naira [about $97] and it is nicknamed ‘I pass my neighbor,’ because if you have one you are more wealthy than your neighbors.

I made up my mind that I wanted one for my family because the heat is too much, and without a generator there is no reliable television. We don’t even care about AC [air conditioning], because the current with the generator is too little, so we use fans.

Foreigners who want to invest in Nigeria also find it very difficult because of the electricity problem. It really affects them, because to run anything, you will have very high costs.

Social security is lacking in every part of the country. We complained bitterly during military rule for so long in this country, so we fought it because we thought it was the problem.

But after 12 years, after the military handed over to the PDP [the ruling People's Democratic Party], for 12 years, nothing has been done. We’ve not seen the dividends of democracy.

They should have done at least one thing, to give us power.”

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Elections Day in Nigeria–Part I, from Jos South

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JOS, Nigeria–See above for some photos I snapped in the Local Government Area (LGA) of Jos South, where the first part of the polling process where Nigerian voters will choose their National Assembly representatives was underway this morning.

I’m just posting these photos during a short break before polling starts at 12:30; for those not following Nigeria’s new electoral procedures closely, Reuters explains:

Under procedures to try to stop cheating, up to 73 million voters must first register from  8 a.m. (0700 GMT) before the actual voting starts at 12.30 p.m.

The international news wires generally struck a cautious tone on Saturday morning, reporting that  although the first part of polling was underway, this step was overshadowed by “violence and chaos” after Friday’s deadly bomb blast in Niger state, near Abuja, and a series of other security incidents.

Meanwhile in Abuja, the Associated Press reported the remarks of electoral commission chief Attahiru Jega:

Independent National Electoral Commission chairman Attahiru Jega said about 15 percent of the races scheduled to be held would be delayed until April 26 as officials don’t have ballots for the races. The remaining races will be held on Saturday as scheduled.

“We will do our best to revive hope and confidence in the process,” Jega told a news conference broadcast live on television networks and radio stations across Africa’s most populous nation.

He later added: “We have to keep hope alive.”

More from me later on today’s kick-off, after three delays announced in the past week, of Nigeria’s 2011 elections cycle…

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Jos, Nigeria on the Eve of the Elections


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JOS, Nigeria–A series of bomb attempts, explosions, and other security incidents struck across Nigeria yesterday, on the eve of Nigeria’s parliamentary elections (which got off to a false start last Saturday when polling was postponed after voters had already turned out in droves). In the hilly and pleasant city of Jos, capital of Plateau state, where the license plate slogan is “Centre of Peace and Tourism,” Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 3,800 people have been killed since 2001 in brutal intercommunal violence that has taken on a sharply religious angle.
Last month, in the run-up to the elections, the international news wires and local press reported on a number of ominous incidents in the city: “military apprehends an explosives-laden truck,” “riot police fire teargas on youth at a political rally,” “two die in a foiled bomb attack on a church,” read some of the headlines. In recent days though, the situation has been remarkably calm in Jos, a city that has experienced enough “crises”–almost a euphemism for the spasms of violent killings that have periodically erupted here over the past ten years–to have impacted every resident and to have fundamentally changed the social, economic, political, and religious make-up of the community.

Buzzing around town on an achaba (a motorcycle taxi) yesterday to interview some religious and community leaders on their views on the “Jos Crisis,” I observed what appeared to be business as usual in Jos: street vendors sold pineapples and mangoes and oranges skillfully piled high for display to passers by, young children hawked rat poison and hankerchiefs to drivers stuck in traffic, and the city chugged along until about 1:30 pm when the call to Friday prayer caused a massive traffic jam near the central mosque in town. However, after a few interviews with local leaders and with men and women going about their daily lives in the city, it quickly became clear that the veneer of calm and order in Jos could easily be shattered, as it has been many times in the past decade, should tensions ignite for one reason or the other.

“Since 2001, it has become obvious that to hold an election in Jos North…it is not only dangerous, it is also deadly,” said Hajiya Khadija Ganbo Hawaya, a Muslim community leader and activist who is also an articulate spokeswoman for the Hausa Fulani community in Jos. Hajiya Hawaya, who says she likes to listen to the addresses of popular Egyptian imam Mohammed Hussan and who has followed the Arab revolutions with keen interest in the hope that her fellow Nigerians of all backgrounds will follow suit, links the violence that has devasted her people and Jos as a whole to one thing: the selfish interests of local politicians who are systematically destroying Jos by “engineering” problems between Muslims and Christians.

Recounting the story of how horrific violence came to be commonplace in Jos, Hawaya starts the story back in 1994, but keeps a razor-sharp focus on the role of the federal and governments, both under military rule and after “democracy” was instated in 1999, in instigating violence through unjust and corrupt policies.

Aside from the scores of lives lost in the violence, another tragic impact of ongoing “Jos Crisis” has been the complete reshaping of the human landscape in Jos. “You can call them ‘separatist settlements,’” said Solomon Dadalung, a local opposition candidate hoping to be elected administrator of a town outside Jos. “People have restructured [their communities] based on their faith or race,” he added. As an outsider it is not easy to know whether one is passing through a Muslim or Christian neighborhood, and many Nigerian men of all faiths wear traditional robes and hats that often only Muslim men don in other countries. Stop anyone on the street, though, and he or she will bring you up to date.

“There are no-go zones,” said Levi Gowon, 55, a civil servant working in the local judiciary. His friend, Sunday Agwom, 47, who works at the bank next door to the judiciary agreed, saying “the Muslims will kill us if we go to their areas, and same for them if they come to ours.” Asked if this arrangement was a good thing for the people of Jos, both reacted instantly: “It’s not good!”

“We are all Nigerians,” said Gowon, “we should all live together.” Despite these remarks, as the discussion veered into questions about which residents of Jos are “native” to the plateau region and which are “settlers,” opinions hardened on who should enjoy full access to the fertile land in the area and full rights as citizens.

As in a number of electoral constituencies across Nigeria, elections in the Jos North and Jos Central local government areas–the city is divided into three of these areas–have been postponed for the third time in the past week due to problems with ballot papers and other logistics; parliamentary elections in these areas will now occur on April 26, the same day as the state governor elections. Some residents of Jos will still head to the polls today, amid tight security around town and checkpoints manned by Nigerian military officers sent to Jos as part of a “special task force.”

“Our prayers are that people will go into this amicably,”said Imam Ashafa, someone who has seen the consequences of the violence and suffering in Jos over the past decade as an inter-faith peace activist working across religious lines to mediate with community members in the Middle Belt who have fought each other along these same lines.

(The above slideshow are photos I took around town yesterday, which illustrate that people were going about their daily business on the eve of the vote here–apologies for a few repeats of photos which I could not figure out how to edit out of the slideshow!)

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