Nigeria's church speaks out

Lagos - Nigeria's powerful Catholic Church has added its voice to the chorus of criticism levelled against the country's flawed and violence-marred elections, slammed by foreign observers as a step back for democracy.

"We have again failed in conducting free, fair and credible elections," said the head of the Catholic Bishops Conference, which represents about 30 million people - or one out of five in Africa's most populous nation of 140 million.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Felix Alaba Job cited massive fraud and disorganisation, including result sheets being passed around to politicians who simply filled in numbers as they chose while bribed returning electoral officers looked away.

The European Union, which like former colonial power Britain and the United States, is "deeply troubled" by irregularities that fell short of international voting standards, estimates at least 200 people died in Nigeria's two-stage state, presidential and parliamentary polls April 14 and 21.

And even outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose handpicked successor won the presidential poll, has admitted the polls were flawed.

Waving aside calls for a re-run, Obasanjo said on Monday that the world's sixth oil exporter could do better next time.

"After all, in another four years, there will be an opportunity for a fresh contest which I hope will take care of ballot paper and ballot box malpractices," said unflappable Obasanjo.

The first move by president-elect Umaru Yar'Adua, the ruling party candidate who chalked up a landslide win with 24,6 million votes - or around 70 percent of counted ballots - was to plead for peace in a country with a history of severe violence.

"The contest has come and gone, so must our differences in the interest of the greater good," said Yar'Adua, who takes the helm May 29.

"I want all Nigerians to join hands and work hard in moving this country forward."

Asked to comment on allegations of massive vote-rigging, said by foreign monitors to have exceeded fraud in the 1999 and 2003 polls won by Obasanjo, Yar'Adua described Saturday's election, held concurrently with parliamentary polls, as "one of the best elections organised in Nigeria".

As fears of trouble helped push oil prices up to a three-week high on world markets, one Western diplomat said the harsh talk would die with a whimper.

"People will forget, and it'll soon be business as usual," he said.

As opposition parties Wednesday continued to air their grievances, the Daily Sun headlined its edition "Shock, Anger".

But it was business as usual in Abuja, the capital, and in the country's blazingly hot and humid commercial centre Lagos. There was the usual din of horns in traffic-choked streets and hawkers going about their business in a country where the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day.

"There was a lot of fraud, yes, but as Christians we believe that the man God wants to be our leader will be our leader," said Harrison, a young supermarket assistant in Abuja.

Yar'Adua, the quietly-spoken 55 year-old governor of one of Nigeria's northern Sharia law states, has a track record of financial prudence, public service and accountability and is among the few governors recently absolved of corruption by the country's anti-graft agency.

He has promised to tackle corruption, a major issue in a country regularly ranked among the most corrupt by global watchdog Transparency International. - Sapa-AFP

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