Elections and politricks, Nigeria-style

I've reported on a lot of elections in my time, all the way from Iran to Zimbabwe, but I've never be

I'm pretty sure there is no Granita restaurant here in Abuja, but there should be. Because Nigeria's vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, is convinced that the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, promised to hand over to him halfway through his second term - and then reneged on the deal. It does have a familiar ring to it, doesn't it?

But I haven't found that many similarities between the Nigerian political scene and good old Westminster. When I was here eight years ago, as the country finally bid farewell to nearly 15 years of dismal military rule and returned to at least a form of democracy, I met Femi Kuti, son of the late afrobeat star Fela Kuti. His father, he told me, used to say that in Nigeria democracy should be spelled "dem-all-crazy". I think I know what he meant.

Ballot papers turn up at polling stations already filled in. Or not at all. Ballot boxes are stolen. Some polling stations don't open all day. Others open hours late, or close hours early. The polling station where I spent election day was impeccably run: it opened on time, closed on time, and every ballot was counted publicly on the spot. I rather fear it was the exception that proved the rule. The turnout at my polling station was dismally low, by my reckoning less than 15 per cent.

The etiquette of bribery

I've reported on a lot of elections in my time, all the way from Iran to Zimbabwe, but I've never before interviewed a self-confessed vote buyer. The young man I met in the sprawling, dusty, decaying city of Kano, in the far north, was willing to talk to me because he'd been the victim of another deal that went sour. President Obasanjo's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) had, he said, hired him to bribe voters to support their man. The going rate, apparently, was 20p per vote; he'd been promised £10 for a day's bribing. He showed me most convincingly how you bid the voter good morning, take his hand in yours as you chatter away about how important it is that your chap should win, and, as you're ambling along, a crumpled banknote is somehow transferred. Trouble was, said my disgruntled vote-buyer, the PDP man didn't win - so the party didn't pay up. Politics (or "politricks", as Nigerians call it) really is a dirty game.

Vanishing funds

On Wednesday, I was invited to the home of Mohammed Abdulsalama, who runs his own modest timber business. It was beginning to get dark, but he had no light and no power for his electric fan. The power had gone off eight hours ago, and there was no knowing when it would come back. Apparently the first word his young daughter spoke as a baby was "Nepa" (for National Electric Power Authority or, alternatively, Never Expect Power Again), because she used to hear her father yelling it so often, every time the lights went out. There is a chronic power shortage in nearly all of Nigeria: the first politician who can provide a reliable supply will be a national hero. So why doesn't one of the world's biggest oil producers have an adequate supply of electricity? Because every time the government allocates cash to build a new power station, it somehow disappears, usually into a Swiss bank account. The man who runs the national anti-corruption commission reckons 80 per cent of public funds simply vanish.

Rich pickings

The saddest thing I've heard since I got here was said by a wise political pundit as we chatted poolside at the Abuja Hilton (these election gigs are tough). We were gazing at our fellow guests - well fed and resplendently robed, their air-conditioned, chauffeur-driven limousines waiting by the hotel entrance. "Whenever I see a rich Nigerian," said my friend, "I know I am looking at a dishonest man."

There is plenty of money gushing into the Nigerian government's coffers, but it all comes from oil. So why should a government care about the needs of the people who provide virtually none of its tax revenue? It doesn't have to worry about being voted out of office - all that cash can simply buy electoral victory. My friend said he'd be a happy man if he woke up one day to discover that all Nigeria's oil had magically disappeared.

Robin Lustig presents "The World Tonight" on BBC Radio 4 and "Newshour" on the World Service

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover