Florida Redux ... in Africa
Ballot problems. Biased party operatives running the elections process. Large swaths of minority voters disenfranchised by the corruption and incompetence of the government. No, this is not Florida; it's Nigeria.
National elections in Nigeria are scheduled for March of 2003, and in order to vote, Nigerian citizens must register. But the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta are being systematically denied voter registration. Government officials say they don't have enough registration forms to go around. But Ogoni observers say that is not true: those in regions most likely to vote in favor of the ruling political party have plenty of forms and are not required to wait in lines, while those in regions like the Ogoniland, where a majority of the populace is known be critical of the sitting government, are told that materials are in short supply or not available at all.
The Ogoni people of the Niger Delta have been on the losing end of Nigerian politics for well over a decade. Since 1990 they have openly battled Royal Dutch Shell, which has exploited and polluted their land in its pursuit of oil since 1958. Ogoni playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian military government in 1995 for his role in organizing resistance and protests against Shell in Ogoniland. The military cracked down on the popular uprising with helicopter gunships and weapons paid for or supplied by Shell; in return, the government reaped rich rewards in kickbacks and payoffs from Shell.
With The Body Shop and Amnesty International, I was deeply involved in the Ogoni's struggle against Shell in the mid-1990s, and personally campaigned (albeit in vain) to save my friend Ken Saro-Wiwa's life. But the struggle is not over: in 1998, the Ogoni 19 -- activists who faced the same charges as Ken and who were scheduled to be executed -- were finally freed after much international pressure was brought to bear on the Nigerian government. And in America, at least two lawsuits against Shell alleging human-rights abuses and gross corruption in Nigeria are now pending.
When dictator Sani Abacha died in 1998, Nigerians felt hopeful that democracy might be returned to their corruption-laden land. And indeed, a relatively crisis-free democratic election in 1999 fueled that hope. Olusegun Obasanjo of the People's Democratic Party (PDP)was chosen by over 60 percent of the public, over two opponents from different parties.
But after three years in power, Obasanjo is not keen to open himself up to defeat in the name of democracy. Corruption and patronage are rampant in his administration, and as a new election nears, he is doing all he can to ensure his reelection. Even if that means rigging the system.
The Ogoniland is a largely rural region split into four voting districts. Residents often have to walk for several hours in one direction just to reach their district's registration office. Dozens have reported trekking to the centers on four or more occasions and being turned away each time.
The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) employed more than 30 monitors to observe the voter registration process, and documented dozens of irregularities in a report entitled "A State of Fraud: Observations on the Voter Registration process in Rivers State."
Among them, the trained staffers of the Independent National Electoral Commission who were supposed to run the voter registration centers were in several cases replaced at the last minute by local PDP loyalists. Registration centers were also closed for hours or days at a stretch during the registration period without explanation. Some Ogoni who went to register were given forms that had already had the party affiliation section filled out. And time and time again, prospective voters were told, simply, that the registration center had run out of materials.
MOSOP's appeals for rectification of the situation were first met with a resounding silence from the federal government, and then with hollow promises to extend the registration process to compensate for the problems. Now MOSOP is demanding an independent investigation into the issue, but the government is unlikely to embrace that suggestion for obvious reasons.
In Ken's memory, and for the deep respect and admiration I have for the culture and spirit of the Ogoni, I continue to pledge what support I can.
So if indeed a shortage of registration forms is the difficulty, as the government seems to insist, then here is my challenge: I will happily pay for the printing and distribution of whatever number of forms is required to ensure that every single citizen of Ogoniland who is eligible and willing to vote is registered. If the Nigerian government is honestly interested in democracy, it will take me up on the offer.
I'll be waiting by my phone.
Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a lifelong activist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.