OXFORD, England — Nigeria’s first attempt since independence in 1960 to transfer power from one civilian government to another has just ended — farcically. Indeed, the presidential election degenerated into a crude exercise in ballot rigging and voter intimidation.

As a result, the victory of Umaru Yar’Adua, the candidate of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party and President Olusegun Obasanjo’s handpicked successor, is now hotly disputed. The major opposition candidates — Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Patrick Utomi of the African Democratic Party (ADP), Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress (AC), and Orji Uzor Kalu of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA) — reject the results and are calling on Nigerians to protest peacefully. Both local and Western election monitors have said that the poll fell far below acceptable standards.

Although U.S. officials had said that the United States would not support Obasanjo if the election were flawed, it was an open secret long before polling began that the PDP would manipulate the outcome to remain in power. Obasanjo made it clear that he considered the election a “do or die affair” and would hand over power only to Yar’Adua. Even so, the scale and brazenness of the fraud were unprecedented, indicating Obasanjo’s desperation.

Obasanjo is understandably anxious. Last May, the National Assembly slapped down his attempt to rewrite the constitution in order to remain in office beyond the stipulated two terms. His effort to use corruption charges to exclude from the election his vice president, Atiku Abububar, with whom he had been feuding since 2004, also failed when the Supreme Court ruled that Abububar’s name had to be restored to the ballot.

Moreover, Obasanjo has a long and sorry track record when it comes to elections. In his first incarnation as military head of state in the late 1970s, he had a relatively free hand to shape the outcome of the 1979 elections. He gave power to Shehu Shagari, the presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria, who was widely viewed as incompetent and yoked to feudal interests in Nigeria’s Muslim north.

The Shagari government quickly became mired in corruption and inefficiency, plunging the country into debt and a vicious cycle of unemployment, declining productivity, and social unrest. So the military, which had terminated the First Republic in January 1966 with a bloody coup, returned to power in December 1983 and did not quit until 1999, when prodemocracy forces, galvanized by economic decline and reports of military graft, forced the democratic elections that brought back Obasanjo to power.

Obasanjo’s eight years in office did not resolve Nigeria’s economic and political problems — key among them a new political framework to fit the country’s social diversity. And, given its past performance, it is unlikely that the PDP will allow for a new and cleaner vote. Buhari, the ANPP candidate, has asked the National Assembly to begin impeachment proceedings against Obasanjo. Some prominent Nigerians have also suggested that if the electoral crisis is not resolved before Obasanjo steps down on May 29, the chief justice should take over as interim president and organize new elections.

Buhari has wide support in the north and Abubakar has a formidable and well-resourced party machine; but mutual distrust run deep in both camps. If they unite in their moment of adversity and take their grievance into the streets, they will have to confront the generals, notorious for their disregard of civil rights and liberties. Obasanjo retains the backing of the army, some of whose members openly participated in stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating the opposition.

Any significant move to tackle the PDP machine will likely need to come from the Senate and its president, Ken Nnamani, who played a key role in thwarting Obasanjo’s quest for a third term. Nnamani’s sudden decision to recall the lawmakers in the wake of the vote may be the first step in this direction. But impeachment proceedings are not likely to be concluded before Obasanjo quits on May 29. The Supreme Court has a new chief justice whose ruling in the Abubakar case demonstrated that he could be counted on to intervene on the side of fair play, but it is not clear what constitutional instrument could be used to resolve the election crisis before the handover date.

So once again, democracy in Nigeria is at a knife’s edge. Armed militias in the Niger Delta are becoming bolder. The price of Nigerian crude is rising, a sure sign that the world sees instability ahead. Only swift and firm intervention from impartial external parties working in concert with the National Assembly and the courts can avert a looming disaster.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.