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Illegal arms shipments to Nigeria raise stakes ahead of 2011 elections

General elections in Nigeria are still several months away, but tensions are rising with memories still fresh of the 2007 poll which saw widespread allegations of corruption, voter fraud and violence.

A policeman guards a road that leads to the electoral commission office in Lagos, Nigeria Sunday, April 22, 2007.

Nigeria wants to avoid the chaos and violence of 2007

A Nigerian court in late November charged an Iranian and three Nigerians over an illegal arms shipment seized in the main port of Lagos and sent from Iran. The find has sparked debate on what interests the Islamic Republic may have in Africa's most populous country of 150 million people.

"I think the Iranians see the destabilization of Nigeria as a chance for the Islamization of the whole country," Heinz Jocker, a Nigeria expert and a member of the EU's Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) to the country, told Deutsche Welle. "They'd like to see the introduction of a Sharia High Court across the whole nation."

Nigeria's secret service in October intercepted the shipment of 13 containers filled with rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives and ammunition. The cargo was thought to be on its way to Gambia and had begun its journey from a port in Iran. Gambia reacted by severing all diplomatic ties with Iran, a strong ally, and demanding all Iranian diplomats leave the country within 48 hours.

The Nigerian government responded to the discovery by alerting the United Nations Security Council under regulations included in UN sanctions which bans Iran from selling arms.

Only a few days after Iranian businessman Azim Adhajani and his alleged accomplices faced charges of conspiring to supply illegal weapons, another shipment - this time originating in Belgium and travelling through Germany - was intercepted in Lagos. This consignment included pistols, ammunition, bulletproof jackets, military boots and eight heavy duty trucks painted in military camouflage and carrying UK insignia. A number of Nigerians were arrested in connection with the shipment.

Experts divided over whether armed conflict is possible

While the alleged Gambian connection suggests that the weapons caches may not have been intended for use in any military actions within Nigeria, such scenarios cannot be entirely ruled out. Nigeria will hold a presidential election on April 9, 2011. Parliamentary elections will be held a week earlier and voters will elect governors in the country's 36 states to round off the process on April 16.

Militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)

The arms may have been for rebels in the Niger Delta

"There are worrying signs that some factions in Nigeria are preparing to use force before, during or after the polls," Richard Gowan, an Africa expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "That's not a surprise, as previous Nigerian elections have seen episodes of violence and fraud."

The 2007 polls were marred by rigging and intimidation, leading observers to declare them not credible.

"The nightmare scenario is that Nigeria will follow a pattern similar to Kenya's in 2007, with disorder escalating in sensitive parts of the country like the oil-rich Niger Delta," Gowan said. "But there aren't conclusive signs that this is on the way. The Nigerian authorities can still make this election a success."

However, Heinrich Bergstresser, a Nigeria expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg, said he believed that the discovery of weapons shipments in Nigeria was no cause for alarm in the context of the upcoming elections.

"The whole issue of gun running in Nigeria is rather over-exaggerated and in fact is to some extent only relevant to the Niger Delta," Bergstresser told Deutsche Welle. "Even this is an issue of the past because most relevant militias have made a peace deal with the federal government."

He said the violence evident in previous polls would not repeat itself.

"As far as I am concerned, scenarios like the ones during the elections of 1999, 2003 and 2007, where powerful local godfathers in conjunction with militias of different factions decided the voting in their areas by the gun, will not happen again during the forthcoming elections," Bergstresser said.

Elections key to Nigeria's future

After the chaos and conflict of the previous ballot, the pressure is on for Nigeria to conduct peaceful and credible elections in April 2011. There are more than just seats of power at issue.

A Shell oil company worker on an offshore oil platform in the Niger Delta, Nigeria.

Nigeria has huge oil and natural gas reserves

"This election is a fight between groups over the access to resources and money, as it always has been throughout Nigerian history," Jocker said. "It is also a fight between religions, again, like most of Nigeria's struggles." Nigeria is divided between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south.

"The current Nigerian political system in general and the political class in particular are at stake in these elections," Bergstresser said. "The elites want to stabilize the still fragile political system under a democratic dispensation to make sure that their unwritten consensus concerning the distribution of the country's wealth among themselves can continue as friction-free as possible - at least for the forseeable future."

Security and stability in Nigeria is as much an international concern as it is a domestic one as the elections get nearer. A number of global players are monitoring the situation ahead of the poll, with many harboring similar agendas to those factions vying for power in Nigeria itself.

"African and Western diplomats are watching the run-up to Nigeria's elections very closely," Gowan said. "Nigeria is not only by far the strongest state in West Africa and the key to stability throughout the region, but it's a major energy producer."

As a nation with such abundant natural resources, Nigeria is a country of interest for as many states as there are reasons for them to meddle. The United States has stepped up its influence in recent years by increasing military support, training and cooperation in Nigeria in an attempt to shore up the country's US-friendly government.

"The US, as the most important external interest party and Nigeria's biggest oil and gas importer, has a vested interest in having a stable and, on the surface at least, a democratic, legitimized government," said Bergstresser. "Nigeria is considered a major African player and seen as a prominent actor in the US-Africa relationship."

China, Russia, and India also had geopolitical, economic and strategic interests in West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, which belong to the biggest gas reserves in the world, he added.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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