General elections in Nigeria between 12 April and 3 May constitute yet another attempt to hold the country's first successful civilian-run polls and break a trend - some call it a jinx - that has dogged it throughout its 42-year history.
Only on two previous occasions - in 1964 and 1983 - have elected civilian governments supervised general elections. Each was characterised by widespread vote rigging and violence that left the country tottering. In both cases the military intervened soon afterwards, dismissed the civilian authorities and went on to hold power for long spells.
The first military coup in 1966 toppled the government instituted at independence from Britain in 1960, and precipitated events leading to the 1967-70 civil war in which more than one million people died. It was 13 years before another elected government returned to power.
The man who became the first military leader in Nigeria to have voluntarily handed over power - in 1979 - to elected civilians was General Olusegun Obasanjo. He had assumed power three years earlier after his military predecessor was assassinated in a failed coup. Obasanjo is currently Nigeria's president and faces another rendezvous with history as he leads his country to yet another critical vote.
30 political parties contesting
A total of 30 political parties are contesting the elections as against three in 1999. But only 20 are presenting presidential candidates. Some of the others do not fancy their chances of winning the presidential race while two (Alliance for Democracy - one of the three that contested four years ago - and Masses Party of Nigeria) have given their support to Obasanjo, who is seeking re-election as candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP).
Obasanjo's strongest challenger is General Muhammadu Buhari of the main opposition All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP) who, like the president, is a former military ruler. Two other candidates also have military backgrounds, reflecting the strong influence military elements have in Nigerian politics. Maj-Gen Ike Nwachukwu, a former foreign minister in a previous military government, is the candidate of the National Democratic Party. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu who, as a colonel in the Nigerian army, led the attempted secession of the southeast - the issue over which the 1967-70 Biafra war was fought - is the flagbearer of the All Progressive Grand Alliance.
The smaller parties secured their registration by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) after a lengthy legal battle that ended in their favour at the Supreme Court. The best known among them include: the National Conscience Party, led by fiery human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi; the Green Party of Nigeria, led by Olisa Agbakoba, another lawyer-activist; and the Movement for Democracy and Justice led by Muhammed Dikko Yusuf, a former police chief. In the 1960s, Yusuf set up the country's secret police and intelligence services, but in the last decade he has presented himself as a masses-oriented political activist.
The electoral contest is made even more intriguing by the candidacy of Chris Okotie of the Justice Party and Moji Adekunle-Obasanjo of the Masses Movement of Nigeria. Okotie is a popular Christian pentecostal preacher, who first came into the limelight in the 1980s as a pop star before he gave up music for evangelism. Adekunle-Obasanjo, a retired army major, had married President Obasanjo in 1991 under customary law but they later separated.
First elected President in 15 years of military rule
When Obasanjo took office in 1999, it was as the head of the first elected government in Nigeria since he relinquished power in 1979. More than 15 years of often brutal military rule had passed, during which the political problems spawned by colonial attempts to weld together more than 250 ethnic nationalities as one country were kept under a lid by the force of the gun but never quite resolved.
These problems had been compounded by the emergence of the oil boom of the 1970s, when crude oil which first ran in trickles after initial discoveries in the mid-1950s, became a flood that brought billion of dollars in its wake. The competition among the power elites - politicians, bureaucrats in government, and military officers - now revolved around control of the huge amounts accruing to the treasury.
The power centres and the patronage system that emerged fuelled, not productivity, but corruption and conspicuous consumption. Only a minority of Nigeria's 120 million people benefitted from the upswing in national revenue, while the rest bore the brunt of economic mismanagement. Competition within this minority of military elites, contractors, businessmen, middlemen and power brokers for the control of national resources created a vicious circle of coups and counter coups, social and political instability.
Nigeria faced its worst crisis since the civil war after military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida, in his reluctance to leave power, annulled presidential elections in 1993, judged free and fair by local and international observers. Babangida was forced to leave power by massive protests but in the ensuing turmoil, General Sani Abacha seized power.
Abacha unleashed even greater repression and began a process to transform himself from military to civilian ruler by emerging as the joint presidential candidate of all political parties. Abacha's sudden death in 1998, apparently from a heart attack, paved the way for reforms initiated by his successor, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, leading to elections in 1999. Obasanjo, who won the vote, had only months before been freed from prison after Abacha jailed him for allegedly plotting his overthrow.
Obasanjo was touted as best suited for presidency
Obasanjo was touted by many, based on his military background, as best suited to tame a military that had become used to exercising political power and who, many feared, would snatch power yet again on any pretext. On taking office, Obasanjo began with what many thought were the right moves.
He promised to crack down on corruption, seen by many as a cancer that had been undermining the country's development goals. He also weeded out from the armed forces hundreds of officers who had held political office and were thus thought to be more susceptible to its temptations.
However, it seemed as if the democratic dispensation lifted a huge lid off a boiling cauldron of long-repressed tensions. Several violent communal disturbances broke out in different parts of the country just as the military was retreating to the barracks and leaving the elected government in charge.
Violence in several parts of the country
Some of the worst violence occurred in the Niger Delta region in the south, which produces most of the oil that is the mainstay of Nigeria's economy. Around the oil town of Warri, the area's three main ethnic groups (Ijaws, Itsekiri and Urhobo) battled as each lay claims to ownership of land that would accrue more benefits and influence from oil operations to their communities.
In other parts of the country there was similar violence. In central and northern Nigeria nomadic and settler communities fought each other over the conflicting needs for pasture and agricultural land. Some of the violence was also been spurred by old political grievances, some going back to the pre-colonial or pre-independence era.
A series of violent clashes pitching Muslim Hausa-speakers of the north against Yorubas of southwest Nigeria had their origin in resentment by the latter against the perceived dominance by the former of political power. Most of Nigeria's civilian and military rulers since independence have been Muslim northerners. Resentment against this trend was deepened by the annulment of the 1993 poll by a northern-dominated military when a Yoruba businessman, Moshood Abiola, was poised to win.
Another catalyst for violence came with the adoption of strict Islamic or Shari'ah law starting from 2000. So far 12 states in the predominantly Muslim north had adopted Shari'ah law, which prescribes punishments such as the amputation of limbs for stealing, public flogging for drinking alcohol and stoning to death for adultery. In the majority Christian south, the extension of Shari'ah beyond the previous limits of civil law to include criminal applications was perceived as part of an agenda of Islamisation.
Attempts in 2000 to introduce Shari'ah in the northern state of Kaduna, which has approximately equal populations of Christians and Muslims, sparked religious riots in which more than 2,000 people were estimated to have died. Reprisal killings against Muslims in the predominantly Christian cities of Umuahia and Aba in southeastern Nigeria took another 500 lives.
The atmosphere of suspicion generated among adherents of both faiths has since ignited further ethno-religious violence in a number of towns and cities, including Kano in the north, Jos in central Nigeria and Kaduna. Thousands of lives have been lost as a result; social and political stability remains threatened.
Obasanjo's response to violence
Obasanjo's response to the nationwide restiveness has been at times heavy-handed and at times tentative. In November 1999 when militant youths in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta killed 12 policemen, his response was to despatch a military force. In reprisal the troops razed the town of Odi, where the policemen had been killed, destroying every building save a bank and a church and leaving hundreds of people dead.
The response was similar in 2001 when 19 soldiers drawn into a conflict between Tivs and Jukuns in central Nigeria were killed by a Tiv militia. Soldiers ordered into the area by Obasanjo levelled several Tiv villages, including the trading town of Zaki Biam, leaving yet more hundreds of unarmed civilians dead.
On Shari'ah his approach has been to tread softly against states that have adopted the legal system, despite asserting that some of the punishments were in violation of the constitution. On the more controversial cases involving stoning death sentences, the government has pledged to block the execution of the sentences if they are not overturned in the judicial appeals process.
But perhaps more worrying for Nigeria's stability during these past four years has been the emergence of various militia and vigilante groups across the country. Many of these groups have played leading roles in most of the violence unleashed. Among the best known have been the Oodua People's Congress, which claims to defend the interests of the Yoruba and doubles as an anti-crime vigilante. It was implicated in much of the ethnic violence that has rocked Lagos in the last four years.
In the southeast, a group known as the Bakassi Boys first emerged as an anti-crime vigilante, but played a leading role in violent reprisals against Muslim northerners in the region in the aftermath of the Kaduna riots of 2000. Also in that region, a decidedly separatist group has emerged, seeking to revive the failed secession of the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Known as the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, its activities have been a source of friction with law enforcement agencies, resulting in many deaths.
In the north, the Hisbah or the Islamic vigilantes, who enforce the dictates of Shari'ah are counterparts of a sort to these other militia groups. Their overzealousness in enforcing Shari'ah has often provoked religious violence.
Out of these centrifugal movements that have been pulling the country apart, a chorus of voices have called on Obasanjo's government for the past four years to convene "a sovereign national conference" of the country's ethnic nationalities to renegotiate the basis of Nigeria's existence. Obasanjo has repeatedly rejected this demand, despite the fact that many prominent Nigerians have added their voices both as individuals and interest groups to the call. His argument has always been that good governance would make such demands irrelevant.
But there are very few Nigerians who think his government has made any difference in its first term in office. The fight against corruption, which he made the centrepiece of his policy, appears to have floundered. Although an anti-corruption law was the first act Obasanjo pushed through parliament, no single corruption conviction was secured in the past four years and corruption has continued to bourgeon.
More Nigerians living in poverty
Data collected by the National Planning Commission and the United Nations Children's Fund shows that the proportion of Nigerians living in poverty increased under the civilian government. Yet the government has been in office at a time when high global oil prices ensured high inflows of revenue. Promises to end perennial electricity outages and fuel scarcity, a national embarrassment for a country hugely endowed in energy resources, have failed to materialise.
A late entrant to politics, Obasanjo did not have - prior to his win in 1993 - any established political structures of his own that could give him the leverage needed to bring about any fundamental changes, analysts say. Forced to borrow existing structures of vested interest groups to capture presidential power, he apparently became a captive of these powerful interests, unable to leave the political straightjacket he was required to don.
"The last four years have seen Obasanjo battling to emerge from being a hostage of powerful political forces," said political analyst Ike Onyekwere.
The manifestations of this struggle to assert himself politically included a protracted conflict between the executive and the legislature, even though the ruling PDP has an overwhelming majority in both houses of parliament. Within four years there were three senate presidents and two speakers of the house of representatives as Obasanjo and his opponents in both chambers engaged in a bitter power struggle.
Even the president's political life was at stake after the legislature in August 2002 gave him 14 days to resign or face impeachment proceedings, alleging several constitutional breaches by Obasanjo. A beleaguered Obasanjo eventually accepted the mediation of former civilian president Shehu Shagari and former military ruler Gen Yakubu Gowon, to get the legislators to back down and save the country from several months of political uncertainty.
"This effort to assert himself over members of his party and create a political machinery of his own consumed most of the president's first term and left him no breath to execute any concrete development programme," said Onyekwere.
Nigerian governments are too big
Many analysts also believe that Nigeria's tradition of running big governments at both federal and state levels will need to be dispensed with if any significant funds are ever to be realised for genuine development projects that impact positively on the lives of the majority.
"About 80 percent of the entire government revenue is spent on the administrative costs of government at federal, state and local government levels, with only 20 percent left for capital development projects," economist Tunde Akinrele told IRIN. "No country can achieve meaningful development in such a situation."
According to the analyst the president's cabinet alone comprises nearly 60 ministers and junior ministers. In addition he has more than 400 special advisers, senior special assistants and special assistants. "Considering that all these people also have their own special assistants, personal assistants and secretarial staff, you can then imagine the waste," Akinrele said.
By the third year of the current democratic experiment, re-election had engaged most of the energy and attention of politicians. Many who had witnessed the performance or non-performance of the officeholders were also determined to upstage them. Thus was the stage set for what has so far been a bloody confrontation, with political violence spiralling.
Much of the ethnic, communal and religious violence of the preceding three years have dovetailed with the violence of political thugs and assassins, filling most Nigerians with premonitions about what to expect from the vote. The government has acknowledged that the increasing political violence, if unchecked, could scuttle the country's current democratic experiment and bring back the military. Obasanjo has also promised to do everything possible to make sure the polls are peaceful.
In the words of Onyekwere: "There is an awareness among Nigerians that if this election goes well it will be a step towards lasting democracy and that if it goes terribly it could spell doom for the existence of the country. What remains to be seen is whether the politicians share the same apprehension."