In Nigerian Vote, Chaos and Fraud
Observers Easily Detect Abundant Irregularities
RUMUJI, Nigeria, April 21 — he young men were gathered in a huddle, a stack of ballot papers on a table, a clear plastic ballot box at their feet. One pressed his inky thumb onto the ballots, one after the other, as another man stuffed them into the box.
The scene, at a half-built concrete building in this town outside the oil capital of Port Harcourt, was just one of many irregularities easily visible in Nigeria’s presidential election Saturday. A vote that outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo predicted would be a historic step forward for this eight-year-old democracy was instead chaotic, violent and, by many accounts, blatantly rigged.
Throughout this area of dirt roads and towering palm trees, election officials closed polling stations hours early and announced heavy turnouts. Vans loaded with ballot boxes could be seen speeding down highways by 2:30 p.m. for voting that was supposed to run until 5 p.m.
One election official, Goodluck Ohochukwu, boasted that all 241 voters registered for his polling station had cast ballots by 3 p.m. As he counted them out — 240 seemingly legitimate ballots, one spoiled — it was clear they were marked overwhelmingly for Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party. It was a triumph, he said, of the area’s unusually committed and intelligent voters.
“They just came out and did it,” Ohochukwu said with a smile. “All of them.”
But human rights activists, journalists and other independent observers reported a turnout so lethargic that it amounted to a virtual boycott by opposition supporters. This was especially true in the volatile Niger Delta region, an area notorious for rigged elections and political violence.
The violence started Friday night, with an attack on government headquarters in Delta state. Police said heavily armed militants had unsuccessfully attempted to kidnap Goodluck Jonathan, the vice presidential candidate for Obasanjo’s party.
The party’s presidential candidate, little-known northern governor Umaru Yar’adua, was widely
Tpredicted to win because of the efficiency of Obasanjo’s political machinery. Of the 24 other candidates for president, Yar’adua’s most serious rivals were expected to be Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
Election morning arrived with more bad news: Police announced an attempted truck bombing of the national election commission’s headquarters in Abuja, the capital. Somebody put a heavy rock on the accelerator of a gasoline truck loaded with explosives, police said. The truck crashed into a pole long before reaching the building and failed to detonate.
“If it had succeeded, this election would have been seriously marred,” Obasanjo told journalists as he voted in his home town of Abeokuta, in southwestern Nigeria, the Reuters news agency reported.
Many Nigerians said the vote was marred anyway. Observers detailed numerous problems: Some saw ballot boxes stuffed or stolen. Polling stations opened hours late, closed hours early, or both. Serious delays in delivering ballots forced the postponement of legislative elections across the country.
And the presidential ballots lacked the names of the candidates — they showed only the initials of parties and logos — and also serial numbers that, in most democracies, are crucial to preventing fraud by allowing the easy tracking of ballots.
Last Saturday, at the Okwukwo-Etere polling station near here, voters lined up at 8 a.m. for gubernatorial elections, only to wait until after 1 p.m. for the voting to begin. On this Saturday, most simply did not show up.
“People have now lost interest,” said Steven Ogbonna, 37, a pastor who supports a small opposition party that he said had no chance to overcome rigging by the ruling party. “They should go and announce whatever they feel like announcing.”
For hours, voters would saunter up every 20 minutes or so to cast ballots in the open, without a hint of privacy. The two election officials would help them find the line for Obasanjo’s People’s Democratic Party, sometimes gently directing their thumbs to its initials and symbol.
Worlunwo Iwedi, 72, who used a cane to walk to the voting table, told the polling officials that he wanted to cast a ballot for the PDP candidate for House of Representatives. They obliged by guiding his hand to the party’s initial and symbol — an umbrella — and placing his thumbprint beside it. Then they guided his hand to the presidential ballot as well, giving a vote to Yar’adua.
“I wouldn’t have voted for him,” Iwedi said in an interview moments later. “I would have voted for Atiku” Abubakar.
By 2 p.m., after about 30 of the more than 200 voters registered at the polling station had cast ballots, two dozen young men gathered outside. Soon after, Ogbonna said, he watched election officials put their own thumbprints beside the PDP symbol on all the remaining ballots. “They are now voting by themselves, the officers,” Ogbonna said by phone. An hour later, the station was closed.
Not far away, in Agwara village, another polling official counted his results nearly two hours before voting was supposed to end.
“It’s done,” said Osita Madumwagwu, 24, the presiding officer. “Yes, it was supposed to go until 5, but we’re already finished.” There were 600 registered voters but only 500 ballots, all of which had been used already, he said.
To tabulate the results, he stacked on a table ballots cast for each candidate. There were three or four ballots each for Abubakar, Buhari and some others. To hold the stacks down in the afternoon breeze, Madumwagwu put a small stone on each.
But for the ruling party, the stack quickly grew high as an assistant pulled fistful after fistful of ballots out of the box. Madumwagwu found another stone on the ground, one about four times the size of the others, and placed it atop the pile.
Voters in Katsina wait to cast ballots. Observers reported that turnout, especially in the Niger Delta, amounted to a virtual boycott by opposition supporters.
Police escort ruling party presidential candidate Umaru Yar’adua, who was widely expected to win.
A Nigerian woman shows her voter card before casting a ballot. In some places, polls closed hours earlier than scheduled.