, LAGOS, Mar 30 – Nigeria begins an election period on Saturday that will determine if Africa\’s most populous nation can break from a history of deeply flawed and violent polls and take a clear step toward true democracy.
Africa\’s largest oil producer, divided roughly in half between Christians and Muslims and hit by outbursts of violence in recent months, will elect a new legislature, president and state governors over three successive weekends.
Many observers say the stakes are nothing short of whether the West African powerhouse can finally begin to chart a course that will allow it to live up to its huge potential, more than 50 years after independence from Britain.
"Anything short of free and fair elections will impede Nigerian progress," said Thompson Ayodele, head of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis think tank.
Parliamentary elections will occur on Saturday, followed by the presidential vote on April 9 and governorship and state assembly ballots on April 16.
The ruling Peoples Democratic Party has won every presidential vote since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999, but there are signs that each of the three elections this year could be more competitive than usual.
President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian and the first head of state from the oil-producing Niger Delta, is the clear favourite.
But his candidacy has upset sections of the north, where many feel it is their region\’s turn to rule.
His main challenger is seen as ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north.
Parliamentary elections could loosen the PDP\’s firm grip on the legislature, some analysts say, with a large number of incumbents not running.
The ruling party could also lose governorships in certain states — a situation some say holds the most risk for post-electoral violence.
Bomb blasts and other types of attacks have already hit a number of states in the run up to the polls, prompting concern from authorities.
"Neither my ambition or that of any politician is worth the blood of any Nigerian," Jonathan told thousands at a rally last weekend.
The challenges are enormous in a country where corruption is deeply rooted and the 150-million population is starkly divided between rich and poor.
It is one of the world\’s largest oil exporters, but has been unable to supply sufficient electricity to its rapidly expanding population and imports petrol because its refineries do not function properly.
But many note that there have been tangible improvements in recent years overshadowed by the negative perception of the country.
The head of the central bank, appointed nearly two years ago, has taken forceful steps toward cleaning up a banking system that had been mired in insider deals. Its economy has grown significantly, with GDP expected to increase by around seven percent this year.
Jonathan has promised free and fair elections, which would be a major feat.
Officials and diplomats say behind the scenes that a completely free and fair ballot is unrealistic, but point out that significant improvements can occur.
A recently installed electoral commission headed by a respected academic has raised hopes that this time, things will be different. It has started over from scratch, doing away with an old voters\’ list littered with false entries.
To create a new one, it deployed thousands of computers and took electronic prints of each finger of every potential voter before issuing them a card — an expensive and complex task for any country.
In Nigeria, the process saw bouts of chaos and violence, and registration centres were sometimes hobbled by a lack of electricity. But despite the problems, observers have said it was better than in 2007.
"I think what is hopeful is … at least the leadership of the electoral commission appears determined to carry out a free and fair, credible election," said Clement Nwankwo, head of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in Abuja.
Its job on each of the three election days will be complicated by factors beyond its control.
In the past, politicians, particularly in the Niger Delta, have recruited and armed youths and gang members to help them carry out rigging. Ballot boxes have been snatched by thugs.
Recent bomb blasts in the capital Abuja and in central Nigeria, hit by repeated clashes between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups, have added to fears.
"Given the traumatic feelings of 2007 elections, it becomes very important to see whether this is a beginning of a reversal of the downward slide," said Nwankwo.