Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Saturday vowed to ensure elections due by next April were free and fair and called for the passage of electoral reforms by the end of the year.
In a broadcast to the nation to mark Democracy Day, which celebrates the end of military rule just over a decade ago, Jonathan said the challenge for Africa's most populous nation was to hold elections in which every vote counted.
"That is why the consummation of the process of electoral reform is a collective task that must be done this year," he said in the address.
"Let me once again assure all Nigerians that this time, under my watch, all votes will count."
Jonathan is keen to avoid the sort of shambolic elections which brought late president Umaru Yar'Adua to power in 2007, polls so marred by ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation that independent observers deemed them not to be credible.
|Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan waves after an official visit to the family house of late president Umaru Yar'Adua in the northern city of Katsina, May 8, 2010.|
Electoral reform legislation has been before parliament for months but time is quickly running out for meaningful changes to be implemented ahead of the next polls, due by April 2011.
One of the recommendations is a six-month buffer between polling day and the swearing in, which always takes place in May, to allow the resolution of legal challenges. That could mean polls as early as the end of the year.
An unwritten agreement in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) states that the office of president should rotate between the Muslim north and Christian south every two terms.
Late President Umaru Yar'Adua, who died at the start of May, was a northerner in his first term meaning the ruling party nominee should be another northerner who can complete at least the second term.
But Jonathan has not ruled out standing and has won support from some northern politicians, even though a bid by him could split the PDP, which has won all of the past three elections since the end of military rule in 1999.
Critics say the PDP's overwhelming dominance in national politics -- with a strong majority in both houses of parliament and control of over three quarters of Nigeria's 36 states -- has turned Nigeria into a virtual one-party state.
The powerful governors' caucus in the party has handpicked presidential nominees who have always gone on to win the polls, leading some Nigerians to question the relevance of Democracy Day, meant to commemorate the day in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo become the first elected leader since the end of military rule.
"For the parties to be relevant in the nation's democratic enterprise, it is compulsory that a regime of internal party democracy must prevail," Jonathan said.
Jonathan also took the opportunity to announce a new salary scale for public workers to address "pay distortions," but gave no details, and said 10 billion naira ($67 million) would be disbursed in loans for civil servants to buy their own homes.