Elections a turning point for Nigeria

ABUJA - Nigeria faces a test of its young democracy on Saturday with state elections that the government has promised will break with a past of rigging and violence.

At stake are 36 governors' posts and hundreds of state legislators' seats. The conduct and results of the polls will give Nigerians an indication of what they can expect from the presidential election a week later.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and biggest oil producer, returned to democracy in 1999 after three decades of almost continuous army rule. There were elections that year and in 2003.

This month's polls are viewed as a turning point in Nigerian politics because, for the first time since independence in 1960, one elected president is due to hand over to another.

The constitution limits the president and state governors to two terms in office, so President Olusegun Obasanjo must step down, as must most of the 36 governors.

Governors control huge amounts of public funds and have enormous power in their states, making the April 14 gubernatorial polls as important in the eyes of many Nigerians as the April 21 presidential election.

Obasanjo has promised free, fair and credible elections. He has repeatedly condemned political violence and vote-rigging, practices that have undermined the credibility of Nigerian elections including the 2003 poll in which he won a second term.

Despite his assurances, many voters are suspicious of the political class and fear intimidation.

Ada Ogidi, a domestic worker in the capital, said: "Elections are very dangerous in this country. You never know what can happen. Maybe you will go to vote and you will find thugs on the street. It's better to stay at home with your children."

Civil activists say many Nigerian politicians pay and arm unemployed youths to intimidate voters or opponents. More than 70 deaths have been reported in clashes between such youths since November.

Rigging has also been a feature of Nigerian elections, through ghost voters, ballot stuffing, counterfeiting and bribery of electoral officials to modify results.

Reports have appeared in newspapers of voter registration machines being found in the private homes of politicians, and of children being registered to vote. - Reuters