Voting in Nigeria Marked by Tumult
Elections Are Hailed Despite Riots, Fraud
KANO, Nigeria, April 14 — Ballot boxes were reported stuffed and stolen, votes bought and sold. A combination of shootings, riots and fires pushed the death toll to at least 12, police said. But by the end of a chaotic election day Saturday, many Nigerians were hailing the nationwide vote as among the most orderly in their eight-year-old democracy.
Some fear that official results, which could come as soon as Sunday, may spark new trouble. But so far, unrest has remained concentrated in the oil-rich Niger Delta and has not approached the levels of the election of 2003. In most polling stations across the country, voting proceeded smoothly, if a bit later than planned.
“Surprisingly it’s been very peaceful,” said police spokesman Haz Iwendi, speaking from Abuja, the capital. “We expected more violence.”
At stake was control of the country’s 36 states, as well as the patronage and graft traditionally available to governors and lawmakers there. The vote could also provide early indications about which party is likely to win the presidency in a second round of voting next Saturday. President Olusegun Obasanjo is stepping down in May after serving the constitutional limit of two fouryear terms.
Top in the minds of many voters were quality-of-life issues. Despite years of surging government revenue in a country that is among the world’s leading oil exporters, Nigerians complain that their living standards have stagnated, with rising joblessness and inflation and increasing power outages. Many blame corrupt politicians.
Baturiya Yusha’u, who sells soft drinks out of her home in the northern commercial center of Kano, says she has seen her small business suffer from months without electric power.
“It’s difficult to sell because there’s no electricity,” said Yusha’u, 45, who was supporting the leading opposition party, the All Nigeria People’s Party. “Nobody will buy if it’s not cold.”
Hundreds of thousands of police officers and soldiers virtually shut down Nigeria’s cities, barring all but official traffic and inspecting the few vehicles still on the road. Children played impromptu games of soccer on the empty streets.
Even with Nigeria’s epic traffic jams gone, logistical snags delayed the opening of polling stations across Africa’s most populous country, with 140 million people and 61 million registered voters.
Voters in one opposition stronghold in Kano grew angry when election materials still hadn’t arrived by 11 a.m., three hours after voting was supposed to begin. When the clear, soft-side ballot box arrived — looking like something an American family might load up with towels and sunblock for a trip to the beach — government worker Nasiru Garba, 41, lost his temper.
“They brought the ballot box without the ballot paper!” Garba said with a mixture of frustration and amazement. “This is definitely an effort to sabotage the interests of the public.”
A half-hour later, the ballots had arrived, but there was no way to mark them. Voters were supposed to place a thumb print by the candidates of their choice, but the black ink pads had not arrived. Election officials later extended voting by several hours.
The most serious incidents occurred in the troubled Niger Delta, where abductions, robberies and violent clashes with police are routine. Militants attacked two police stations in Port Harcourt, the region’s largest city, hours before dawn, killing seven officers.
Also in the delta, a politician’s home was firebombed, killing three people. When ballots arrived late at one polling station, youths burned down the local election office. There also were sporadic reports of apparent ballot box stuffing.
The Associated Press reported that in one Niger Delta polling station youths bought and sold ballots and identification cards for about $3 per vote. At another polling station there, a dozen shirtless men on a balcony above the ballot boxes shouted down at voters, telling them how to cast their ballots.
Beyond the delta, two politicians in the southern city of Enugu were killed in a scuffle. Nationwide, the number of arrests reached into the hundreds, with charges including assault, arson and theft of ballot boxes.
At a polling station in his home state in southwestern Nigeria, Obasanjo told reporters that overall, “the situation in the country is very satisfactory. . . . So far, so good.”
His election in 1999 marked the beginning of Nigeria’s modern era of democracy, following decades of coups, assassinations and abortive attempts at civilian government. A successful transition next month would be the first handover of power from one elected leader to another.
Vying to replace Obasanjo is his handpicked candidate, Umaru Yar’adua, a reclusive northern governor, and former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
A third candidate, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, is fighting a legal battle to have his name restored to the ballot after the electoral commission barred him from running, citing allegations of corruption. Abubakar, who long has been estranged from Obasanjo, has accused the president of manipulating the electoral commission to keep him off the ballot.
A voter in the southern city of Port Harcourt casts his ballot during state elections across Nigeria. Voting for president will take place next Saturday.