Nigeria’s general elections were marred by the late opening of many polling stations and sporadic violence in a tight race for the presidency between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and pro-market multimillionaire Atiku Abubakar.
While the presidential and parliamentary polls officially opened at 8 a.m. on Saturday, many balloting stations suffered delays while election monitors reported violence in some areas. The front-runners for the top job are Buhari, who’s campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, and Abubakar, who’s promised to boost economic growth but is dogged by graft allegations.
Nationwide, 47 percent of the polling stations opened by 10 a.m., according to Clement Nwankwo, the chairman of Situation Room, a coalition of more than 70 civic groups monitoring the election process. The figures were 27 percent in the southeast and 21 percent in the oil-rich Niger River delta region, he said.
“This disparity is worrying,” Nwankwo told reporters in Abuja, the capital. “The delay may affect the collation phase, which is now likely to go into the night, with attendant security threats.”
The vote followed an 11th-hour postponement a week ago that the electoral commission said was due to logistical problems and not because of security or political issues.
Just hours before the election started in Africa’s top oil producer and biggest democracy, Islamist militants fired artillery shells into the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, the military said in a statement. The insurgents, some allied to Islamic State, have been fighting in the region for a decade in a bid to impose their version of shariah law.
In oil-rich Rivers state, Governor Nyesom Wike accused the ruling party of using the military to rig the vote, an allegation Deputy Director of Army Public Relations Aninu Iyiyasu denied. The Situation Room said six of the 16 deaths reported from eight of Nigeria’s 36 states states were in Rivers.
With potentially 73 million people voting, the election is the continent’s biggest-ever democratic exercise. Much will depend on turnout, which was less than 44 percent four years ago when Buhari became the first opposition candidate elected to the presidency in the West African nation’s history.
“l am here to vote for a better Nigeria,” 60-year-old Eziekiel Shobola said as he stood in line at a polling station in Lagos, the commercial capital. “I want somebody that will end the suffering in this country.”
Buhari, 76, and Abubakar, 72, are both northern Muslims in a country split roughly evenly between a Christian south and Islamic north. Yet their career paths are very different.
Buhari is a former general who ruled the country briefly in the 1980s and morphed into a civilian politician who won on his fourth try for the presidency in 2015. Abubakar, who served as vice president, has business interests ranging from oil and gas services to food manufacturing and a private university.
Both carry heavy baggage. Buhari and his ruling All Progressives Congress have faced sharp criticism for their handling of the economy. The president imposed capital controls as the naira currency came under pressure amid plunging revenue form oil, the country’s main export, and foreign investors fled. After an economic contraction in 2016, the economy expanded 1.9 percent last year, the fastest since Buhari’s election.
Yet Nigeria now has more extremely poor people, 87 million, than any other nation, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. The United Nations expects its population to double to 410 million by 2050, overtaking everywhere bar India and China.
Buhari’s supporters paint him as a rarity in Nigeria: an honest politician who provides a sharp counterpart to Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party that governed Nigeria for 16 years from the end of military rule in 1999.
Buhari’s suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, accused of falsely declaring his assets, just weeks before the presidential election, was criticized by the legal community, the U.S. and the European Union, because the vote results may be contested in the Supreme Court.
The president’s also generated controversy by saying that anyone who tries to rig the election “will do so at the expense of his own life.” The PDP said the remarks showed Nigeria risked becoming a dictatorship.
Since Buhari came to office, Nigeria’s stock market has been the world’s worst performer, losing about half its value in dollar terms. Wall Street banks such as Citigroup Inc. say Nigerian equities and bonds will probably rally if Abubakar wins.
Abubakar portrays himself as someone who knows how to get things done and his pro-market policies have won some favor among investors.
But a U.S. Senate report in 2010 concluded that Abubakar and one of his wives had wired $40 million of “suspect funds” into American accounts. Abubakar denies any wrongdoing and has never been indicted at home or abroad.
Whoever wins will have to deal with widespread violence in the northeast where insurgents, some now affiliated to Islamic State, have been fighting to impose their version of shariah law. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced more than 2.5 million people in the area to flee their homes.