Nigerians turn out in force for presidential vote

2011-04-16 09:51

Abuja – Nigerians massed at polling stations today for what they hope will be their first credible presidential election for decades and could set an example across Africa.

Queues formed early across the country, including the village of tin-roofed shacks in the southern Niger Delta, where President Goodluck Jonathan will vote and the dusty alleyway in the northern village of Daura where his main rival, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, will cast his ballot.

Two bombs panicked voters in the troubled northeastern city of Maiduguri, but there appeared to have been an orderly start to election day across most of the country of 150 million.

The polls pit Jonathan, the first head of state from the oil-producing Niger Delta, against Buhari, a northern Muslim with a reputation as a disciplinarian.

Other candidates include former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu and Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau, though they are seen as rank outsiders.

“We have come out early because this is the time for the north. We know Buhari can change the lives of our people, change the standard of living,” said Salisu Yahaya (35), a civil servant waiting in line in Daura.

The African giant, home to more people than Russia, has failed to hold a free and fair presidential election since military rule ended in 1999, leaving many of its citizens with little faith in the benefits of democracy.

But a relatively successful parliamentary election a week ago, deemed credible by observers despite isolated acts of violence, has renewed voter confidence. Turnout appeared to be much higher than for the parliamentary election.

“There is no mago mago,” said local election observer Agu Michael (42) using the Yoruba expression for trickery in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city. “People will come out in mass.”

Market women took advantage of the swelling crowd to sell boiled plantain bananas and meat stew.

President Jonathan, a former zoology teacher born to a family of canoe makers, is the front-runner.

He is backed by the national machinery of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose candidate has won every presidential race since 1999.

“We are very happy that someone from such a humble background can climb to the top. It’s a great example for the youths,” Elei Green (45) an oil and gas company administrator who flew in from Atlanta to vote, said of Jonathan’s village.

But Jonathan is resented by some in the north, who believe he is usurping the right of a northerner to the presidency for another four years.

He inherited office after his predecessor, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua, died last year in his first term, interrupting a rotation between north and south.

Buhari, a strict Muslim known for his “war against indiscipline”, is hoping to capitalise on some of the resentment and is likely to win strong northern support despite his Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) being a young party.

He would need to prevent Jonathan from taking at least a quarter of the votes in two thirds of the 36 states if he is to stop him winning in the first round, a feat which northern support alone is unlikely to guarantee.

Fellow opposition contender Nuhu Ribadu’s Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) party has its stronghold in the southwest, and could help force a run-off. But the two failed to agree a last minute alliance this week, leaving the anti-Jonathan vote split.

Although the ruling party appeared to have lost a big chunk of its parliamentary majority in last week’s election, it was still on course to take more than half the seats.

The stakes are higher in the presidential race and the security agencies are on high alert. Land borders were closed ahead of Saturday’s election and a curfew imposed overnight.

“If Nigeria gets it right, it will impact positively on the rest of the continent and show the rest of the world that Africa is capable of managing its electoral processes,” said former Ghanaian President John Kufuor, who is leading an observer mission from the African Union.

“If Nigeria gets it wrong, it will have a negative influence on the continent with dire consequences,” he said. 

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