Nigeria to hold Jan. 22 presidential election despite ongoing concerns over vote-rigging

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria will hold its presidential election in January, giving the oil-rich nation only four months to register voters and untangle its notoriously corrupt electoral system.

The Independent National Electoral Commission announced Tuesday that the presidential election would be held Jan. 22, sandwiched between a Jan. 15 election for the National Assembly and a Jan. 29 election for state offices. In the interim, the commission plans create a new registry for an estimated 70 million eligible voters in Africa's most populous nation.

However, the commission has yet to even order the computers it plans to use in November to register voters across Nigeria's sprawling cities and rural villages. Nor has it begun to hire the estimated 50,000 poll workers it will need to run the election, leading some to wonder whether the coming polls will mirror the nation's ballot-box stuffing past.

"I think we can achieve a modicum — and I underline that word — a modicum of credibility," said Innocent Chukwuma, a Nigerian poll monitor now teaching at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The time is too short to expect them to perform magic."

After gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria, an oil-rich country with a population of 150 million, suffered through a string of military dictatorships and coups.

The country became a democracy through a presidential election in 1999, but its polls remained mired in vote-rigging, violence and political thuggery. The People's Democratic Party, composed of the nation's elite, carries the political muscle necessary to ensure its candidate makes it into the presidential villa of Aso Rock. International observers called the 2007 election of President Umaru Yar'Adua rigged, even though it represented the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the nation's history.

Yar'Adua entered office vowing to reform the system that put him in power, but died in May without any of his promised reforms became law. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who took office after Yar'Adua's death, has said his highest goal is to ensure "that all votes count and are counted" in the 2011 election.

However, Jonathan has declined to say whether he'll seek the presidency, casting a sense of unease across the election. Former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar both have said they want to contest the election as the ruling party's candidate.

"We cannot have a situation like we had during the former dispensation where election results were written in hotel rooms and given to the (election) chairman to sign," said Emma Ezeazu, general secretary of the Alliance for a Credible Election.

Many applauded Jonathan for appointing Attahiru Jega, an academic with popular appeal, as the new leader of the national electoral commission. However, the commission has yet to purchase the equipment needed to make an entirely new voter registry, as many considered the 2007 list riddled with errors and fraud.

Election monitors say the government must allow members of the public to double-check their names and information against the list to ensure its accuracy. The electoral commission has set aside five days in late November for that, so long as the registration occurs on time.

The commission also must ensure that its poll workers refuse politicians' bribes and strong-arm tactics, Chukwuma said. Otherwise, he warned the new registry would become an accurate, yet ignored list.

When the registration starts "and things are not done the way they said they would do it, that's when the doubts will start," the professor said. "In this period, all we can do is hope for the best and perhaps prepare for the worst.

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Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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Online:

Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission: http://www.inecnigeria.org/