Friday, April 15, 2011

Violence Presages Nigeria Poll


IBADAN, Nigeria—Lawmakers and candidates are among the targets and alleged perpetrators of violence in the run-up to Nigeria's presidential elections on Saturday, as a wave of suspected political score-settling raises fears that the vote could spur broader civil unrest in Africa's most populous country.

Pollsters said last week that Nigerians are likely to return Goodluck Jonathan, a soft-spoken former zoology professor, as their president with about 60% of the vote, in an election seen as pivotal for Nigeria's economy and future. But the postvote outlook remains cloudy, in part due to Nigeria's brand of brute politics that has re-emerged ahead of the vote.

The rash of politically motivated and religion-linked attacks has raised the prospect that violence could continue after Mr. Jonathan's likely victory, destabilizing parts oil-rich Nigeria and scaring away foreign investors.

In the past two months, nearly 100 people have been killed and millions of dollars of property damaged in campaign-related violence, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch and Nigerian political parties.

Last week, a bombing in northern Nigeria killed at least eight people on the eve of the parliamentary polls. In March, a political youth leader was killed by suspected members of a radical Muslim sect in the northern part of the country, the latest in a series of similar killings. And an opposition gubernatorial candidate in Nigeria's southeast was arrested last month and charged with murder after violence between supporters of rival parties.

Such incidents are "being replicated all over the country, in almost every state," according to Edward Dickson, the editor of the Nigerian Tribune newspaper. "[Politics] is not about service, it's about what you can grab."

Nigeria has been gripped, meanwhile, by the twists of a murder case that has the hallmarks of what Nigerians say is rotten in their system—one in which warring politicians and hired toughs fight over the spoils of a booming oil-based economy.

Late last year, a convoy of men with guns and machetes roared up to an elementary school in this southwestern Nigerian city, the capital of Oyo state. Witnesses say they singled out their target—Lateef Salako, a local boss of the National Union of Road Transport Workers—and left him dead and bloodied of gunshot and knife wounds.

The union has been used in the past by politicians to attack or intimidate political rivals, according to analysts and politicians, although in this case the motive of the murder wasn't clear.

Within days police arrested a key suspect: Senate majority leader Teslim Folarin. He and three policemen who acted as bodyguards were charged with murder and conspiracy. Several witnesses placed Mr. Folarin and his guards at the scene and say he ordered the guards to shoot, according to police reports.

Mr. Folarin, who denies any wrongdoing, says he arrived at the school after Mr. Salako had been killed and says he was set up by rivals in his party for political reasons. Police dropped charges against him.

The Oyo state police say they are gathering more evidence before proceeding, and new charges aren't expected until after the election. The local police commissioner at the time of the murder declined to comment on the case when reached by telephone and has since been assigned to a different state. A police spokesman declined to comment.

One week after the murder, on the day of his release, Mr. Folarin flew to the ruling People's Democratic Party primary in Abuja, where he threw his support behind Mr. Jonathan, who secured the PDP's nomination.

Mr. Jonathan isn't linked to the murder of the union boss, but he risks being dragged into the fallout if postelection violence between political rivals escalates sharply. Mr. Jonathan promised free, fair and safe elections.

Frictions within the ruling party have generated further strains. An informal agreement in the PDP, which hasn't lost an election since Nigeria emerged from military rule 12 years ago, rotates power between the mostly Christian south and the mostly Muslim north every two terms, or eight years. Mr. Jonathan came to power last year when his predecessor,Umaru Yar'Adua, a Northerner, died during his first term. When Mr. Jonathan, a Southerner, decided to run for office, his perceived line-jumping angered Northern PDP leaders.

Analysts worry that a contested victory for Mr. Jonathan could push the country toward widespread unrest.

"The only scenario that takes Nigeria away from the growth path is a disastrous election," says Onno Ruhl, World Bank country chief for Nigeria. "If it has good enough elections, there's no reason you can't see an economic takeoff, like India."

The elections season is off to a rocky start. The first round of voting, for Nigeria's national assembly, began April 2. But after a few chaotic hours, in which most of the country was without voting materials, the national electoral commission postponed voting. The government also pushed back presidential elections, originally scheduled for April 9.

Botched elections are an enduring feature of Nigeria's political landscape. But what is different now is Nigeria, the continent's biggest oil producer, is a destination for global investors beyond oil. Goldman Sachs has singled Nigeria out as the only sub-Saharan African country on its "Next 11" fund, and Goldman Sachs' Jim O'Neill, coiner of the term BRIC, has touted Nigeria as the African country to watch.

Foreign direct investment in Nigeria has reached nearly $6 billion in 2009, up from $1.1 billion in 2001. Investment dropped last year because of the global economic crisis, but analysts predict a rebound this year.

Many expect Nigeria to overtake South Africa as Africa's biggest economy within the decade, as a new wave of foreign investors join companies, including Google Inc., that have recently set up operations here. Nigeria is already a key oil hub for Western companies like Chevron Corp., ExxonMobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc. and for consumer goods companies like Nestle SA and Unilever Plc.

Nigeria's GDP is expected to grow at over 7% this year, and Mr. Jonathan's government has pledged to follow through on a number of economic and structural reforms if elected. Those promises include introducing an oil industry bill that would transform the state oil company; the privatization of an anemic power sector; and the creation of a sovereign wealth fund to harness oil revenue, which in the past has been misspent or simply gone missing.

Implementing those reforms after potentially violent and divisive elections will be difficult, and underscore the challenges for a nation whose political leaders are seen as the main impediments to strong and sustained growth.

"What's needed is a reintroduction of fiscal discipline," says the World Bank's Mr. Ruhl. "Will the new government be able to do it? That's the core question.

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