IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As vote nears, democracy disappoints Nigerians

Despite the upcoming presidential election in Nigeria, persistent corruption has weakened public services and the population's trust in elected leaders.
A local man walks past campaign posters in Kano, Nigeria, on Wednesday.George Osodi / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This was Tanko Bala's life before the arrival of democracy: He had a steady job at a factory, a predictable supply of electricity in his home and a few of life's indulgences. Milk with his morning tea. Movies in the evenings.

This is his life now: The factory has closed. The electricity has all but disappeared. The television has been sold along with the VCR. And the elections that arrive every four years are, in Bala's view, so thoroughly rigged that Nigeria's government seems no more a reflection of popular will than it did during the days of military rule. He expects little more from Saturday's presidential election.

"Democracy, they wanted to do good things, but the cheaters are too much," said Bala, 40, a thin, modest man with a wife and three daughters. "Instead of doing work for the people, they do work for themselves."

Nigeria's corruption, rated by Transparency International as among the worst in the world, has undermined its young democracy by weakening public services and trust in elected leaders. President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose election eight years ago ended decades of military dictatorships, is leaving behind a decaying nation whose citizens are poor and increasingly frustrated.

Among the casualties has been faith in democracy itself. Satisfaction with Nigeria's democracy fell from 84 percent early in Obasanjo's first term to 25 percent in 2005 among those surveyed by Afrobarometer, a polling service that measures African public attitudes.

Another casualty has been the nation's infrastructure, which has deteriorated despite a massive surge in oil revenue. Billions of dollars supposedly have been spent improving Nigeria's electrical system, but poorly maintained power plants generate far fewer megawatts than they did when Obasanjo took office, prompting many Nigerians to conclude that much of the money for repairs and upgrades was simply stolen. They also blame corruption for the aging schools, crumbling roads and meager supplies of clean water.

The economic toll has been severe. Here in the northern city of Kano, 500 factories once produced textiles, mattresses and prepared foods for distribution throughout West Africa. Fewer than 100 remain, and few of those operate at full capacity. Without a steady supply of electricity and water, or decent roads and railways to deliver goods, factory owners say they struggle to compete in an increasingly global, open market.

Universal Textile Industries, one of the survivors, spends nearly $40,000 each month on fuel for backup generators, its general manager said. And when the power cuts off, which it does three or four times a day, thousands of spindles turning cotton into thread suddenly stop, snapping the threads. Restarting the machines takes nearly two hours.

As factories closed, beggars grew more visible on Kano's streets. Massive garbage piles began attracting not just grazing goats but also desperately poor children who pick out plastic bags and bottles to sell. Others simply hold up empty plastic bowls to motorists at intersections.

Some Nigerians have grown nostalgic for military rulers who once provided a rough kind of stability through price controls, trade barriers and repressive police tactics.

One of the leading presidential candidates, and Bala's choice for the job, is former dictator Muhammadu Buhari, whose 20-month reign in the mid-1980s is remembered for human rights abuses but also as a pause in the personal enrichment that politicians enjoyed at the expense of citizens.

"Military rule is the best," Bala said, "because the military will not allow people to do anything they want."

Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer and its most populous nation with 140 million people, is midway through a two-part election process. Voters cast ballots for governors and state legislators last Saturday and are to vote this Saturday for president and national legislators.

Also running for president are Vice President Atiku Abubakar and Obasanjo's handpicked successor, Umaru Yar'adua, a little-known northern governor. Many analysts expect the victor to be Yar'adua, who has inherited Obasanjo's extensive political machinery.

The first round of voting was marred by widespread reports of rigging, intimidation and violence, with a death toll that Nigerian newspapers put at about 50. Many polling stations opened hours late, others not at all. Observers reported that in many areas, the results clearly did not represent the will of voters.

At a polling station in Kano last Saturday, many voters grew agitated as they waited for hours in stifling midday heat for ballot boxes to arrive. Azumi Tudun Nupawa, a 50-year-old homemaker wearing an olive-green headdress, said in frustration, "I prefer the military."

The other women in the voting line -- in northern Nigeria men and women line up separately because of Muslim religious rules -- jeered at her. But Nupawa persisted with an embarrassed smile: "The politicians are so corrupt. They are stealing so much."

Siphoning off the public wealth is nothing new in Nigeria. The nation's anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, has reported that $380 billion in public funds was stolen or wasted between the dawn of independence in 1960 and Obasanjo's election in 1999.

Despite some high-profile prosecutions since then, many Nigerians say the problem has only grown worse under Obasanjo. The same anti-corruption agency has reported that all but five of Nigeria's governors were under investigation.

The rot extends deep into the election process itself. With so much money at stake, Nigerians say, political offices are won by those who most efficiently rig votes.

Maazu Mohammed Yusif, a political science professor at Bayero University in the northern state of Katsina, called Nigeria's political system "undemocratic democracy."

Complaints grew louder this week as Obasanjo's ruling party claimed 29 of the 36 governorships. Opposition candidates demanded a delay in the presidential election to clean up the system and briefly threatened a boycott.

Yet as evidence of fraud and political violence mounted, officials insisted that the state of democracy was improving. Even skeptics pointed to some signs of progress, such as a Supreme Court ruling Monday restoring Abubakar to the ballot after the electoral commission had banned him, and last year's successful effort to block Obasanjo from rewriting the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

Another such milestone, some Nigerians say, would be a peaceful inauguration of a new president. If it happens as scheduled next month, it would be the first time that one elected Nigerian president handed power to another.

Information Minister Frank Nweke Jr., speaking from the capital, Abuja, acknowledged some problems with the election season but said that, overall, it had gone well. He added, "In another 15 years, in another 20 years, we expect to have much better results than we have now."

But Bala said he has already lost patience with democracy, at least as practiced in his country.

"I don't like Nigerian democracy," he said, his voice edged with disappointment.

At one time, though, he did. Like most Nigerians, he said, he had cheered the 1999 election that put Obasanjo in the presidency, assuming a better life would accompany freedom.

Back then, the gray wires snaking into his boxy concrete house delivered electricity at night, when the city's factories were idle. But Obasanjo promised more power, which meant appliances -- like his television and tiny stove -- might work during the day as well.

Perhaps water would begin flowing through the taps, or a sewer system would replace the hand-dug ditches that carried waste into the dirt alleys where children played. Bala had even imagined that someday he might drive a motorcycle to work instead of riding a bicycle.

"We thought we were going to get lights, water and more," he recalled. "But as time goes on, the suffering was more."

After the factory where he was a machine operator closed in 2004, Bala struggled to find a job. When he did, three years later, it was for a lower wage -- $3.50 a day instead of $4.25 -- with longer hours. Buying basics, such as water, rice and firewood, now consumes nearly half of his salary. And he has cut back to one major meal a day.

Life might yet improve with a new government, Bala said. He voted last weekend and plans to again in the presidential election. Then he will sit in his home's tiny parlor, where the television used to be, and root for Buhari while listening to results on his radio.

Even if the lights don't flicker on, as they so rarely do these days, the radio will work; it runs on batteries.

"If Buhari wins, we are expecting light," Bala said. "He will force them to bring light."