U.S.-based election watchdog the National Democratic Institute (NDI) said after a five-day visit that important steps had been taken to improve on the country’s previous flawed votes but that “vigorous action” was still required.
“There are encouraging developments in Nigeria’s election process,” an NDI delegation led by former Botswanan President Ketumile Masire and former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark said in a statement following the visit.
“However, concerted efforts are required to clarify the electoral calendar, implement practicable improvements and inspire public confidence and participation,” it said.
Presidential and parliamentary elections in Africa’s most populous nation have been marred by violence, voter intimidation and fraud since the end of military rule just over a decade ago.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who is standing in the forthcoming polls, has vowed to make the next vote credible, although time is running out for the electoral authorities.
He said on Friday the elections must be held in time to ensure the next leader can be sworn in on May 29.
“The present administration … has a constitutional mandate of four years and not a day more. This mandate will expire on May 29, 2011 and the president fully intends to keep that date with history,” his office said in a statement.
Nigeria had originally been due to hold the polls in April 2011, but the date was moved forward to January earlier this year in order to allow more time for any legal disputes to be settled before the new presidential term begins in May.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) later said the accelerated timetable did not leave it with enough time for a badly needed overhaul of the voter register.
Parliament is considering another constitutional amendment to set the polls back again to April.
The NDI delegation — which met groups including political parties, lawmakers, civil society groups and the security services — said concern had been expressed over disagreement within the ruling party about Jonathan’s candidacy.
Jonathan is fighting for the ruling PDP party nomination but his bid is contentious because of an unwritten agreement that power should rotate between the mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south every two terms.
Jonathan is a southerner who inherited the presidency when northerner Umaru Yar’Adua died in his first term this year. His supporters say he can run as he was elected on a joint ticket with Yar’Adua. His rivals say only a northerner should run.
“Some citizens that met with the delegation expressed fears that a “do or die” mentality could heighten negative competition and raise the risk of politically motivated violence,” the NDI said in its assessment.
“The delegation notes with concern rising fears that, if poorly managed, the PDP primaries could be so contentious as to exacerbate regional, religious or ethnic tensions, perhaps resulting in violence,” it said.
Car bombings in Abuja on Oct. 1, restiveness in the southern Niger Delta, pockets of religious violence and a spate of kidnappings raised questions over the security services’ ability to adequately protect voters in a non-partisan manner, it said.
INEC is working to develop a new electronic voter register to replace an electoral roll riddled with false names and omitting legitimate voters. But it has little time to complete the exercise.
“Large-scale problems with voter registration, including attempts to create an electronic registry in an unreasonably compressed time, undermined past elections,” the NDI said.
“Particular attention therefore is needed to ensure that the present registration builds voter confidence through transparency, verification and public education.”