Nigerians go to the polls on April 21 to elect both a new president and National Assembly, in an election widely perceived as the most significant test for democracy in Africa's most populous state and its leading oil exporter.

For the first time in the turbulent history of West Africa's pivotal state, one elected incumbent will be democratically succeeded by another. Indeed, it is arguably the most crucial democratic vote to date as it tests Nigeria's resolve to consolidate democracy in this enormous ethnically and religiously divided state.

For far too long, the language that has defined this country's political landscape for the past four decades was played out in terms of ethnoregional domination. This was manifested on two interlinking levels: through control of economic power and resources, particularly oil; and through control of political power and its instruments, predominantly the judiciary and the armed forces.

Since independence, military despotic rulers from the predominantly Muslim north ruled Nigeria with an iron fist. The country's oil-reliant economy, in which both rents and royalties were paid into state coffers, has only contributed to the public mismanagement of state resources while enriching and entrenching the Nigerian political elite's grip on power. This has also perpetuated the identity consciousness of the country's 250 tribes, which has led to deepening hostility and distrust between the north and the south in recent years.

Great expectations
Hopes of reconciliation and nation building marked the inauguration of Nigeria's first democratically elected leader, President Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1999. There were great expectations at the time that a newly elected civilian administration, led by a Christian from the south, would help both to reunify and reunite while ushering in a new era of good governance, economic reform and democracy, following on from 16 years of consecutive dictatorial military rule.

From the start, Obasanjo had his work cut out for him. He faced the daunting task of rebuilding a crumbling economy, dysfunctional bureaucracy, fragile democratic institutions and a collapsing infrastructure. This was compounded by the long-standing unrest in Nigeria's oil-producing, yet still impoverished, Niger Delta region in the east of the country.

He promptly embarked on a bold economic reform and stabilisation programme supported by an International Monetary Fund (IMF) stand-by agreement and a $1-billion credit and debt-restructuring deal from the Paris Club (PC). The administration showed remarkable political will in implementing market-oriented reforms that included the curbing of inflation, along with the blockage of excessive wage demands, privatisation of state-owned oil refineries and the modernisation of the banking system.

Ambitious macroeconomic reforms won Nigeria many plaudits from both the IMF and the PC. In November 2005, the government received a debt-relief deal package worth $30-billion from the PC. Despite these strides to put the economy on a more stable footing, Nigeria's 140-million people have yet to experience the benefits of economic liberalisation. With more than 60% of the population living on less than $1 a day and GDP per capita income of $675, Nigeria continues to be one of the world's poorest states. Deep-seated corruption in state institutions continues to be blamed for the apparent lack of growth in income levels among Nigerians.

On the political front, Obasanjo's attempts to bridge the ethnic and religious divides between the country's confrontational groups have been a dismal disappointment. The introduction of sharia law, in 2000, in northern states has only served to fuel tensions between rival Muslim and Christian groups while contributing to the surge of violence and the deaths of thousands on both sides.

Meanwhile, in the tumultuous Niger Delta region, insurgency has spread and the conflict has reached unprecedented proportions. Youth militias have emerged throughout the zone over the past seven years, calling for increased control over oil revenues, greater political autonomy from the central government in Abuja and a halt of environmental degradation of the region by foreign oil companies. In the past year, more than 60 foreign oil workers have been kidnapped, mostly at oil installations. The vandalism of oil pipelines by militias groups has resulted in the loss of $4-billion over the past year.

Election euphoria
Nevertheless, these pressing problems have not dampened the election euphoria among Nigerian voters as they prepare to declare their overwhelming support for civilian democratic rule. Although there are more than 50 political parties vying for power in April's elections, there are only three serious contenders for the nation's top political office: the incumbent of the ruling People's Democratic party, Umaru Musa, who is the current governor of Katsina state and a former polytechnic teacher; and the two main opposition candidates, former military ruler Muhammadu Bujari, of the All Nigerian People's Party, and Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, of the Action Congress.

Although analysts warn of potential violence in the days leading up to the elections and in the week following the announcement of election results, as with past elections, the true measure for success of the April polls rests on three critical factors: the impartiality of the Independent Nigerian Electoral Commission; attempts by the ruling party to influence the choice of an elected successor; and the willingness of the elite to allow democratic institutions and the electoral process, that serves the will of all Nigerians.

By all accounts, the 2007 presidential elections are arguably the most important test of the country's fragile democratic structures and institutions, and perhaps even its nationhood. As West Africa's heavyweight and a leading global exporter of oil, the outcome of the April elections weighs heavily on the minds of regional leaders and global energy experts. A peaceful transition of power, to a democratically elected regime, stratifies the rule of law as well as democracy's hold in the region while securing global energy requirements.

For the average Nigerian on the street, however, the most important election issue is whether the country's democratic process will ultimately lead to economic prosperity for all, regardless of political, ethnic or religious affiliations.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.