(Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.)
Bayelsa State, in the oil-rich Niger Delta, went to the polls on Saturday to elect a new governor. The winner, by a huge majority, was Henry Dickson, the PDP candidate and a close political ally of President Goodluck Jonathan (also native of Bayelsa).
What was the quality of the voting? AA Peaceworks, a Nigerian NGO funded by British aid agency DFID (among others), trained four hundred election observers and established an election situation room to monitor and organize information flowing in from its teams in the field.
While the elections were by no means flawless, AA Peaceworks concludes that the polling and the counting of ballots was good. Indeed, polling took place in parts of the state where voting had never previously occurred and AA Peaceworks publicly commended the behavior of the election and security officials.
The most contentious issue appears to be the size of the turnout. The media and other observers characterize it as low, while the Independent National Electoral Commission claims it was high. However, no credible organization disputes the outcome, and the elections were remarkably peaceful.
The real contest, however, took place between rivals for the People’s Democratic Party candidacy in the months and days before the actual elections. In January 2011, sitting governor Timipre Sylva won the nomination. However, governorship elections, originally schedule for April 2011, were postponed after a court of appeal extended his term because of an earlier election dispute, which had led to the annulment of his 2007 election, and his subsequent reelection in 2008. This ruling was overturned again in May 2011. The PDP then held another primary in November 2011, which Sylva was disqualified from competing in. Despite Dickson’s election, Sylva has contested in a law suit to be heard in the Supreme Court in April 2012 that he is the legal PDP candidate, not Dickson.
This dispute between Sylva and the PDP notwithstanding, Bayelsa would seem to be on the right track, though Sylva’s ongoing law suit could be a fly in the ointment. However, Alex Thurston points out the elephant in the living room. Bayelsa has been a center of MEND activity — destruction of oil infrastructure and kidnapping of oil workers. Those activities largely ended with an amnesty established by President Yar’Adua. The amnesty included massive payoffs of MEND leaders, who now are often counted as Jonathan allies. However, there is a new generation of young men emerging from the swamps who want their share. And MEND and the resulting amnesty have shown the way to get it. In the run up to the elections, there have been renewed threats of mayhem, and at least on bombing. We’ll see.
Asch Harwood contributed to this blog.