* New voter register seen as good start
* Bomb attacks new risk during campaigns
* Partiality of judiciary a concern
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, March 4 Nigeria has completed a new
74-million-strong voter register it hopes will help ensure
credible elections next month, but insecurity and the partiality
of the courts remain challenges to a free and fair vote.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said
late on Thursday it had finalised a new electoral roll of
73,528,040 voters, a strong turnout in a population of around
150 million people, half of whom are under 18.
Previous elections in Africa's most populous nation were
based on an electoral roll including names such us "Nelson
Mandela" or "Michael Jackson" but omitting legitimate voters,
skewing the results even before ballot boxes were stuffed or
results sheets doctored.
INEC chairman Attahiru Jega has been praised by election
observers, diplomats and politicians as more independent and
credible than his predecessor, but overhauling the voter
register was always going to be the easy part.
Preventing violence during campaigning and on polling day,
ensuring results are not altered after collation and that voting
booths are adequately protected, and making sure electoral
disputes are settled impartially are bigger challenges.
"The manipulation of youth to perpetrate violence on behalf
of political actors continues to be a significant threat to the
integrity of the electoral process," the International
Republican Institute (IRI), one of several outside bodies
monitoring the vote, said after a pre-election visit to Nigeria.
At least four people were killed on Thursday by an explosive
device thrown from a car at a ruling People's Democratic Party
(PDP) rally in Suleja, near the capital Abuja, the latest act of
violence in the build-up to the polls. [ID:nLDE72224L]
Suleja was not considered a particular flashpoint and the
use of explosives to target civilians, until recently extremely
rare in most of Nigeria, highlights the risk of indiscriminate
violence even in areas considered relatively safe.
"It is utterly shocking, disturbing and disheartening to
note that bombings are becoming part and parcel of the
democratic process," former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, a
senior PDP member, said in a statement.
President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the attack as "most
deplorable, callous, cowardly and wicked" and ordered the
intelligence agencies to step up surveillance.
LITTLE CONFIDENCE IN COURTS
Localised violence has been a hallmark of Nigerian elections
since independence from Britain in 1960 and three decades of
military rule did little to develop a democratic culture.
Diplomats and security experts say the overall level of
violence just a month away from voting day is lower than in the
past, but bomb attacks are a new departure.
Those responsible for a car bomb in Abuja on New Year's Eve
have still not been identified and there have been several
attacks on opposition party offices and campaign rallies in
Bayelsa state in the southern oil-producing Niger Delta.
"The use of crude IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at
political venues is a very worrying development and such loss of
life by homemade bombs at political gatherings in Nigeria is
unusual," said a security contractor based in the country.
The IRI, whose pre-election mission to Nigeria was led by
former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, also noted that the
judiciary had laid itself open to accusations of partiality by
assuming the role of adjudicator in electoral disputes.
"This has allowed for situations through which candidates
can thwart the will of voters as well as placing the courts in a
politicised environment detrimental to public confidence in
(their) integrity," it said in its assessment.
It recommended that petitions should be independently
reviewed before reaching the courts.
Five powerful ruling party state governors won a court
ruling last week which could prevent them having to stand for
As the incumbent, Jonathan is seen as the front-runner in
the presidential race. But his main challenger, former military
ruler Muhammadu Buhari, is expected to put in a strong showing
in the mostly-Muslim north while the southwest, including the
commercial capital Lagos, is also an opposition stronghold.
That could make it a close race.
(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the
top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )
(Additional reporting by Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in
Abuja; editing by Tume Ahemba and Philippa Fletcher)