Yar’Adua was sworn in at a ceremony in Abuja as the successor to Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president for the last eight years, marking the first changeover of power from one elected civilian to another.
In his inaugural address, Yar’Adua promised to work toward electoral system reforms.
“We acknowledge that our elections were not perfect and had lapses and shortcomings,” Yar’Adua said. “Our experiences have presented an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.”
Obasanjo backed Yar’Adua, a reserved and low-profile governor and former chemistry teacher, as the People’s Democratic Party candidate in the highly contested election last month. There were widespread reports of rigging, mismanagement of ballots and invented results.
Last week, opposition parties filed complaints seeking a rerun of the election and planned protests for the inauguration.
The dissent was not limited to within Nigeria’s borders. A group of 48 Nobel laureates called for a new election last week, and the European Parliament passed a resolution urging the European Union to withhold all financial aid to Nigeria until fresh elections are held.
“It was possibly the worst election in the country’s history, which is an extremely low standard to be competing with it,” said Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and coeditor of the Journal of Democracy. “It was not a democratic election.”
But both Obasanjo and Yar’Adua made statements urging the country to move forward, and few political experts in Nigeria believe a rerun will occur for national elections.
“Everyone agrees [Yar’Adua] didn’t win by that margin, it was grossly inflated, but that he probably would have won,” said Rotimi Suberu, a Nigerian political scientist and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Most Nigerians are willing to accept him.”
Suberu was in Nigeria for the elections and said the worst electoral malpractices and blatant rigging occurred during the state-level elections.
“The hope in Nigeria is that some of the outcomes at the district level will be overturned,” Suberu said. “The major challenge for the new government is to salvage the legitimacy of the government and the democratic process because of the abuse of the electoral process.”
Outgoing president Obasanjo had some success reducing the country’s debt and implementing economic reforms and anticorruption measures. However, his attempt last year to extend the presidential term limit and his perceived manipulation of the electoral and legal system decreased his popularity.
“A tragic opportunity was lost. He established the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, went after some high power figures, made some very historic unprecedented progress and he deserves some credit for it,” said Diamond. “But the EFCC was used as a political weapon and restrained from going after Obasanjo’s allies.”
The continuation and strengthening of these prior reforms are among Yar’Adua’s campaign promises, and many Nigerians are watching to see if corruption charges will be brought against outgoing governors, who by law cannot be prosecuted while in office.
Yar’Adua set peace in the oil-rich Niger Delta region as a high priority during his inauguration speech, calling for an end to militant action in the region that has reduced the country’s oil output.
Demanding a greater share of the oil revenues be distributed to the region, militants have waged a campaign of violence, kidnappings and sabotage. The distribution of oil wealth has been a constant point of contention in the country.
Attacks were particularly severe in the run up to the election and in the weeks after the polls. Oil prices dropped more than $1 a barrel Tuesday because of hopes that the inauguration may bring more stability.
But as Yar’Adua begins his presidency, some experts say the problems of this election will impact the population and their views of democracy.
“There is a sense of disenchantment. This was a terribly disappointing process,” Suberu said, adding that the areas where the election process went relatively smoothly and the population felt the true result was reflected was something to work toward.
The election showed that “where an opposition party is popular and coordinated it can defeat the ruling party, so for that reason people will have some faith,” he said.