As Africa's most populous nation and its second-richest Nigeria is also a bellwether for the rest of the continent, where it plays a vital diplomatic and occasionally military role in ending conflicts. With current President Olusegun Obasanjo due to retire to his chicken farm in May, the election could represent the country's first-ever handover of power from one elected leader to another, breaking the cycle of coups that has plagued Nigeria since independence from Britain in 1960. "These elections are seminal. Nigeria is desperate to consolidate democratic and economic reforms after decades of military rule," says Patrick Smith, editor of the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential, widely read in policy circles.
Like most other African states, Nigeria is a colonial creation, its European-drawn borders housing over 150 ethnic groups, many with scant sense of a common national identity. Its painful transition from military dictatorship into fitful civilian democracy mirrors Africa's wider struggle for good governance ever since Obasanjo, himself a former general, was voted into power in 1999 following the death of dictator Sani Abacha.
But Nigeria is very different from most African countries with similar political histories: The prize, in Nigeria's case, is control over one of the world's more important sources of oil. The 2.5 million barrels a day of crude pumped in Nigeria make it sub-Saharan Africa's largest oil producer, and West Africa will soon overtake the Middle East in importance as a supplier to the U.S. America is expected to import a quarter of its oil from the region in less than a decade.
"Oil is absolutely central [because] politicians determine how the oil money gets divided," says Nicolas Shaxson, west Africa expert at leading U.K.-based international affairs think-tank Chatham House. "Politics in Nigeria is about 'who gets what.'" And until now, the rule has been some get more much more than others, with unscrupulous politicians using their oil 'rents' as a tool for patronage rather than meaningful development.
While successive military dictatorships are accused by the government's anti-corruption commission of embezzling $400 billion in oil windfalls, the vast majority of Nigeria's 140 million people subsist on less than $1 a day.
Meanwhile the southern Niger Delta area, which produces most of Nigeria's oil, has become a virtual war zone, divided between heavily armed rival gangs with names like the Black Axes and Vikings battling for access to pipelines. Oil theft, called "bunkering", costs Nigeria some $4 billion a year and foreign companies have been forced to scale back production after kidnappings by Delta militants, helping send world oil prices sky-high.
Tensions are also simmering in Nigeria's Muslim north after Islamist rebels, who call themselves the "Taliban," burned down a police station in the city of Kano on Wednesday, killing several officers. The attack was in revenge for the recent killing of a radical Muslim cleric. Although Nigeria's Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for centuries, there are worries that the country's Muslims who account for half the population are becoming increasingly radicalized. Several northern states introduced hardline Sharia law in 2000 and decades of government neglect and poverty provide fertile recruiting ground for militant groups.
The presidential frontrunner is Umaru Yar'Adua, candidate for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Obasanjo's surprise choice of successor. The quiet, modest-looking former chemistry teacher looks almost out of place in the rough-and-tumble crucible of Nigerian politics Yar'Adua is one of only five of Nigeria's 36 governors that are not under investigation for corruption.
Yar'Adua's main challenger is Muhammadu Buhari, a former military strongman-turned-democrat. He briefly ruled Nigeria during the 1980s and is known for being a strict disciplinarian. And then there is Obasanjo's bitter foe, vice-president Atiku Abubakar, a last-minute inclusion after the Supreme Court this week dramatically overturned a previous ban on his candidacy stemming from graft charges. Abubakar spectacularly fell out with his former boss in 2003 over allegations that he had channelled $125 million into personal businesses, claiming he was the victim of an Obasanjo-inspired witch hunt.
All candidates profess zero tolerance for corruption, a blight that has seen Nigeria ranked amongst the most corrupt countries in the world by Berlin-based Transparency International. But given that elected office comes with a hefty slice of the petrodollar pie, many people expect politicians to arm their supporters to help them gain sway on polling day.
A preview of what could be a violent voting day came last weekend during elections for state governors, in which election-related violence claimed some 60 lives. The opposition is threatening to boycott the presidential poll entirely in protest of the violence and the deeply flawed balloting that gave a landslide victory to the ruling PDP, which took 27 out of 34 states. In many areas ballot boxes were stolen and people were stopped from voting by party thugs wielding guns, according to a report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
"It doesn't bode particularly well," said Shaxson. "Observers have said for years that Nigeria will fall over a precipice and it never has so lets hope it won't." The violence and questions over the credibility of the balloting won't help Nigeria usher in an era of democratic stability; instead it represents a rising danger of regression to the ways of a nightmarish past. The outcome, as Achebe would have it, may depend on whether Nigeria's leaders can put statesmanship above political advantage.