Africa's largest democracy finally goes to vote, a week late

2019-02-22 20:01
Stickers for ballot boxes are seen during the electoral preparation at a local office of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria. (Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP)

Stickers for ballot boxes are seen during the electoral preparation at a local office of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria. (Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP)

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A voting card and a metal rod for self-defense are both close at hand in Christopher Obiorah's tiny bookshop but he hopes to use just one of them when Africa's largest democracy goes to the polls on Saturday, one week after a surprise delay.

Four years after one of Nigeria's most peaceful elections, heated rhetoric in a tight race threatens a return to violence along fault lines as ancient as this city, the oldest in West Africa. Northerners versus southerners, farmers against herders, the corrupt savaging the poor.

"This is Nigeria. Anything can happen," the 45-year-old Obiorah said, casually mentioning that his family has machetes at home. "We are ready for them. We are many here. We have done it before."

Nigerians have waited impatiently for the election that was delayed because of logistical "challenges," just hours before polls were set to open. It echoed the abrupt power cuts of daily life, with the grind of generators marking the sound of Africa's most populous country forever revving its engines.

The delay is costly in several ways, Nnamdi Obasi with the International Crisis Group explained . Faith in the electoral commission is shaken. Fewer people might vote, dispirited or broke after rescheduling their lives to travel to their registered location. Monitoring could suffer as "numerous organizations, particularly Nigerian ones, may be reluctant or unable to do it all over again."

President Muhammadu Buhari , an ailing 76-year-old former military dictator, this week threatened death to anyone found disrupting the election, then told Nigerians on Friday they would be able to vote without fear. In the latest political violence, at least two people died as supporters of the two main parties clashed with machetes and clubs on Thursday outside Kano, witness Ahmed Garba said.

Buhari seeks a second term after widely seen as failing to deliver on key issues of security, the economy and fighting corruption. Extremists are making a deadly resurgence. Scores of people were killed last week alone in farmer-herder clashes. The oil-dependent economy is still weak after a recession, with unemployment now over 23 percent.

Buhari's main challenger is 72-year-old former vice president and billionaire Atiku Abubakar, who promises to tap his business success to "Make Nigeria Work Again" but has not managed to shake corruption allegations.

Many Nigerians are underwhelmed by the choice between the two Muslims from the north, who between them have run for president nine times.

"I feel as a people, we don't realize how bad things are and that we have the right to demand better," said author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. He was 5 when Buhari was toppled in 1985, then watched his 5-year-old son cheer at Buhari's win in 2015. "We are essentially not going anywhere," Ibrahim said.

The rise of young contenders in a country where the majority of voters are between 18 and 35 has been limited by the high costs of running.

Salisu Mubarak Muhammad, a 35-year-old who is running to be Kano state's governor, said his family refused to donate to his campaign, seeing it pointless when top parties are believed to spend far in excess of campaign limits and vote-buying is widespread.

Buhari and Abubakar's parties have sniped at each other over the election delay that the electoral commission blamed in part on the weather, alleging it was orchestrated to create space for vote-rigging.

But "this is largely just a colossal mess based on logistics, the massive work that needed to be done," said John Tomaszewski, African regional director with the International Republican Institute, one election observer team.

Some Nigerians have used the delay to cause mischief. Fake news blooms. "I have not resigned!" Vice President Yemi Osinbajo declared Thursday on Twitter.

"There is quite a lot of ratcheting of divisive narratives on social media," said Amara Nwankpa with the Yar'Adua Foundation, who oversees a project flagging hate speech to an election crisis center under Nigeria's national security adviser.

Most of the country's 190 million people, however, are offline and deep in poverty, and they could determine Saturday's election. A cement block seller in Kano held up his battered mobile phone. It now costs three times as much as before Buhari took office, he said.

Bookseller James Eze has no idea what Abubakar might bring to the presidency, but he can't take four more years of Buhari.

Business has dropped dramatically, Eze said. He shooed away a child beggar hovering at the door, saying people no longer have spare money for such charity.

Considering everything God blessed Nigeria with, political elites have ruined it, he said. "They're not fighting for Nigeria, they're fighting among themselves."

He spends the quiet hours reading books in stock, choosing one self-empowerment title after another. "We need fresh brains," he said.

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