Polls show Africa's 'giant' has clay feet

By Pascal Fletcher

Dakar - Nigeria's flawed and violent elections hurt Africa's democracy and show the top oil producer failing to live up to its potential as a political leader on the world's poorest continent.

The fiasco of Saturday's vote and the speedy official declaration of ruling party candidate Umaru Yar'Adua as winner undermined Nigeria's credibility to be a democratic flag-bearer in a region notorious for coups and conflicts, analysts say.

Nigerian electoral authorities quickly announced Yar'Adua's victory in the face of a furious rejection of the result by opponents and strong denunciations of violence and fraud by international observers who said the polls were not credible.

"Nigeria has once again failed to rise to the occasion... Size isn't enough... It is a failed giant," said prominent Ghanaian economist Nii Moi Thompson.

Across the continent and the world, observers expressed disappointment that Africa's most populous nation, its visibility enhanced by being the world's eighth largest oil exporter, had failed to set an example at the ballot box.

"There is the saying: 'How goes Nigeria, so goes the rest of Africa'. To have this widespread abuse of the democratic initiative certainly doesn't do Africa any good," said Scott Baker, a professor at Champlain College in the US city of Burlington, Vermont.

"This is a huge blow to Nigeria's credibility on the international scene," said Baker, an adviser for the Nigerian Centre for the Environment, Human Rights and Development, a non-governmental organisation.

The chaotic elections dented the image of outgoing Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a 70-year-old retired general once hailed as a hero of democracy after he became the first Nigerian army ruler to hand over to an elected head of state in 1979.

Saturday's poll should lead to the first handover of power from one civilian leader to another in Nigeria, but analysts said even this transition was now tarnished by the flawed vote.

"Even Liberia, which is coming out of war, had more credible elections than Nigeria," said Thompson, referring to Liberia's widely-praised late 2005 election which voted in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa's first elected female head of state.

Although observers from the regional West African bloc Ecowas joined the European Union and the United States in criticising serious flaws in the Nigerian election, most African governments were expected not to openly contest the result.

"There is an unwritten rule in Africa that you don't interfere with the internal affairs of other states," said Wafula Okumu of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

During his rule, Obasanjo had made Nigeria a major actor in the African Union (AU) and Ecowas, playing regional policeman and troubleshooting mediator in conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and, even more recently, Guinea.

Nigerian mediation was often backed up by Nigerian peacekeeping troops.

But analysts said the undermining of Nigeria's credibility through the questioned elections could compromise its future role as a credible regional broker.

"How can Nigeria sit at the meetings of the (AU) African Peer Review Mechanism or Ecowas and talk about other people's elections?" asked Baker. While urging for the poll complaints to be solved peacefully, most observers feared even more upheaval.

"We're really concerned about the stability not just of Nigeria but of the whole sub-region. While it may be a giant in population and economic terms, Nigeria is still a political dwarf," said Alioune Tine, executive secretary of the Dakar-based, African human rights group RADDHO.

Additional reporting by Orla Ryan in Accra, Alistair Thomson and Diadie Ba in Senegal and Rebecca Harrison in Johannesburg.

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