Nigerians elect powerful governors amid concerns over violence

Nigerians began voting on Saturday for state governors and assemblies in an election that the military said may be threatened by violence.

The balloting in 29 of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory in Africa’s biggest oil producer is the second round of general elections that saw President Muhammadu Buhari win a new and final four-year term last month in a disputed vote in which at least 39 people lost their lives.

"They have started as scheduled, but I know there were one or two challenges of violence," Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, the Independent National Election Commission’s director of voter education said by phone from Abuja, the capital.

Ebonyi and Rivers states in the south are among places violence was reported and voting might be delayed, he said.

Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai said earlier this week some politicians planned to use bombings and other acts of violence in a bid to influence the vote and vowed that the military will take measures to contain the threats.

Buhari’s All Progressives Congress and the opposition People’s Democratic Party are the top contenders in the battle to run the states that are responsible in large part for delivering services in Africa’s most populous nation.

The APC now controls almost two-thirds of the states, and any increase would boost the president’s support from the Governors Forum.

"The governors are much closer to the people and stand in a better position to deliver dividends of democracy in terms of basic facilities, amenities," said Freedom Onuoha, a political science lecturer at the University of Nigeria in the southeastern town of Nsukka.

State governors are usually hotly contested seats being among the nation’s most powerful political offices, with some running budgets larger than those of smaller African nations.

Lagos contest

The two parties are particularly keen to win in Lagos, the commercial capital that has 15 million to 20 million people and an economy of roughly $80bn, according to Fitch Ratings Ltd., which makes it bigger than Ghana and similar to Kenya and Ethiopia. It’s home to the Nigerian headquarters of companies including Exxon Mobil, Facebook and Nestle.

APC national leader Bola Tinubu has been the dominant political force in the state ever since he was its governor from 1999 to 2007.

The military has beefed up its presence in certain states, such as oil-rich Rivers, and in Benue, the epicenter of clashes in the central part of the country between crop farmers and cattle herders over grazing land that London-based Amnesty International said claimed about 2000 lives last year.

Because Buhari’s APC has been banned from fielding a gubernatorial candidate in Rivers as a result of internal party disputes, it’s supporting the African Action Congress against the PDP.

Military involvement

"We are worried about partisanship and involvement of military personnel in elections -- Benue, Rivers, Akwa-Ibom and Imo states are of major concern," said Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.

"We have seen unusual security deployment in a way that raises questions."

The presidential and parliamentary elections last month drew criticism from some observer groups for problems with logistics, collation of results and reports of intimidation.

But the US congratulated Buhari on his 56% to 41% victory over the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar, and the UK government said "the Nigerian people can have confidence in the result".

Abubakar rejected the result, saying there was massive rigging, and has asked the election tribunal to review the vote.

Voter participation in the state elections will probably be lower than the 36% who cast ballots for the president and National Assembly in February, said Idayat Hassan, director at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja.

"Turnout will be lower," she said.

"If they are able to get anything above 30%, we should be happy. There is a lot of discontent and people feel their vote may not count".

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