Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-NIGERIA: Little Excitement Over Local Government Elections

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Mar 27 2004 (IPS) - Low voter turnout, boycotts and a lack of ballot papers in various wards have marred local government elections in Nigeria, which took place on Saturday (Mar. 27) in 31 of the country’s 36 states.

About nine people were also reported to have been killed the day before the vote in Port Harcourt, eastern Nigeria, in what some viewed as a political attack. Thousands of troops were stationed across the country to prevent further violence.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial hub, youths took advantage of a ban on traffic to turn highways into football pitches – while other prospective voters used the temporary lull to clean out their houses. Some said their reluctance to cast ballots stemmed from fears that state officials in charge of the election process would rig the vote in favour of their parties.

“I do not have any reason to go out to vote. The results have already been decided, so why must I waste my time?” asked Ayo Opabunmi, a 25- year-old. “We do not have leaders yet, (and) until this…old brigade (is) off the stage, I have decided never to go and queue for anybody for any election.”

Reports from Gusau, capital of the northern state of Zamfara, said in spite of appeals by the state government for people to go out and vote, attendance at polling stations was very low.

“Low turn-out can be attributed to lack of interest in the election and loss of confidence in the entire process,” a resident said.

The run-up to the poll was dogged by controversy over the creation of new local government constituencies in several states – constituencies which national authorities said were not recognized in Nigeria’s constitution.

While central government says it needs to approve these new areas, states maintain that they have the final say in creating new constituencies. A number of state governors view the government’s reluctance to alter the constituencies as a bid by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to maintain control of their states.

Authorities in Lagos state, the most populous in Nigeria, said it was unfair for the region to have only 20 councils when other regions like Kano, the second most populous state, had 42. There are financial implications to the number of local authorities established in a state, as each constituency is entitled to government funding – which political parties are reportedly competing for.

Even though the PDP does not control Lagos state, it called for a boycott of the poll in Lagos city to protest the fact that elections were being held in newly established wards. The party had filed a court appeal to prevent polls from going ahead in these constituencies, but a judge ruled that the vote could proceed in all 37 of the new wards.

In the northern state of Gombe, the opposition All Nigerian Peoples Party also called an election boycott to protest the disqualification of some of its candidates.

Elections did not take place in three constituencies in the highly volatile Niger delta area, in southern Nigeria, as authorities had feared ethnic violence would break out during the poll.

The Warri North, Warri South and Warri South-West wards have been conflict-prone during previous votes, due to leadership tussles among the three major ethnic groups in the area: the Ijaws, Itsekiris and Urhobos.

The poll was also postponed in two constituencies in the central state of Kogi, where the chairman of the State Independent Electoral Commission and a politician were killed by unknown assailants early this month.

This formed part of an upsurge of violence that has wracked Nigeria in recent weeks, something that the New York-based Human Rights Watch blamed on government’s failure to bring the perpetrators of earlier politically-motivated attacks to book.

The non-governmental organisation says this created a climate of impunity, with dire results. “Political candidates and their supporters are not hesitating to use violence to secure votes, because last year’s (general) elections taught them that they could get away with it,” said Human Rights Watch said in a press release.

Shina Loremikan, a public affairs analyst and coordinator of the Zero Corruption Coalition, says a victory in the local government polls might prove a mixed blessing for the political parties concerned.

“If there is no resource to sustain the newly created local governments, there will be problems for those elected now and this will rub off on their parties in future polls,” Loremikan told IPS.

Nigerians last voted in council elections in 1998. Local government officials were removed from office in 2002 at the expiration of their tenure and the councils have since been run by caretaker committees appointed by the state governments.

The latest council polls were originally scheduled for early 2003, but postponed several times because of disputes over a date for the ballot, the need for a review of the voters’ register and allegations of bias on the part of State Independent Electoral Commissions.

Of the five states where no polls took place, Niger and Sokoto had held their polls earlier – while Anambra, Jigawa and Yobe postponed theirs to a later date.

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