After widespread failures of a new electronic voter ID system aimed at preventing ballot-rigging, Nigerian election officials extended voting through Sunday in a tightly contested presidential race that some worry will prove a prelude to violence.
Incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, 57, has been locked in a hard-fought battle with former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, 72, whom he soundly defeated in a 2011 contest that was followed by widespread bloodshed. If Buhari wins and takes power, it would be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power and a landmark for the continent.
But analysts worry that neither side will be willing to concede defeat and chaos will erupt. Violence of another sort occurred Saturday when gunmen, believed to be from the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, reportedly killed more than three dozen people, including a legislator, in northeastern Nigeria.
In the country’s south, meanwhile, a car bomb blast hit a polling station in Enugu state, police said, but there was no loss of life. There were also reports of several incidents of violence and voter intimidation in the volatile Rivers State, and voter turnout there was reported to be low.
The Independent National Electoral Commission extended voting to Sunday to ensure that all voters could cast ballots despite glitches in new biometric card readers used to identify voters and prevent multiple voting.
In Otuoke in southern Bayelsa state, Jonathan experienced such problems himself when three biometric readers malfunctioned, failing to accept his thumbprint.
“Maybe it’s me?” the president joked, waiting for the reader to work. “If I can endure, you see my sweat? I plead with all Nigerians to be patient, no matter the pains we take. It's the first time we are using this technology.” Jonathan was finally accredited to vote manually.
The electoral commission’s own website was hacked Saturday morning by a group that called itself the Nigerian Cyber Army. The commission said that the website contained no sensitive information and that it would investigate the incident.
Nigeria analyst Darren Kew of the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development, said that opportunities remain for rigging during the ballot-counting process.
This oil-rich West African nation of 170 million people has a history of election violence, vote buying, ballot box theft, underage voting, duplicate voting and rigged counts. Voters are eager for change after decades of poor governance, corruption and shoddy infrastructure. A poll in February indicated that three-quarters of the population believed the government was heading in the wrong direction.
“The real test is going to be what happens tonight or tomorrow,” Kew said. “This is what we have seen in the past, when the numbers start to change really significantly. The big question is to what extent the political parties are going to be able to influence the numbers tonight,” he said, referring to the vote counts.
“They may just change the numbers.”
With polls indicating the race was too close to call, the contest has bred division between northerners who love Buhari and feel betrayed by the incumbent, and Jonathan supporters in the south who mistrust Buhari, fearing that he has an authoritarian streak.
Elections chief Attahiru Jega has promised the cleanest tally in Nigerian history, saying that he would throw out results that don’t tally exactly with the numbers of voters identified electronically.
The opposition All Progressives Congress on Saturday began tweeting totals that its party agents observed, ward by ward, in a bid to forestall vote fraud. The party urged supporters to tweet photos of any irregularities.
“I have a strong hope that this time there won’t be any rigging,” Aiyu Kabiru, 22, a trader in the northern city of Kano, a major trade hub. “We know in a free and fair election, there’s no way Jonathan will win.”
In one polling station in central Kano, the first voting paper was handed out at 5.37 p.m., more than four hours late. Earlier, a voter in central Kano, teacher Mohammad Awwal Jibril, 50, flew into a rage over the delays.
“This is our right,” he shouted. “We are ready to die for this! No one will stop us! We have come out in our total to vote. We are ready to die for our right!”
Textiles trader Yahaya Usman, 35, arrived at a Kano polling booth at 8 a.m. and voted just before 6 p.m. He said many voters were angered and frustrated by the delays.
“I’m really tired, but I wanted to effect some change in Nigeria. I would have been ready to stay up until 10 p.m. if I had to. But it was tiring and frustrating. People are here and they won’t leave until their vote is counted.”
Some voters grew fearful they’d be prevented from voting.
“We thank God that at last we have voted after waiting for so long,” said Rahinatu Adamu, 50, a cafe owner. “I was anxious, because I know the importance of voting.
“As a poor citizen, the only thing I need from the government is water, electricity, security and education for my children. All those things are absent.”
The electoral commission acknowledged that equipment had failed in many areas and voter accreditation had been too slow.
“The commission reassures the public that it will thoroughly investigate what happened while it stays committed to credible elections,” it said in a statement Saturday.
Jonathan has been under fire for having failed to act decisively while Boko Haram militants seized dozens of towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria, killing or abducting thousands of people, burning and looting thousands of homes, and wreaking havoc on the region’s economy.
His government was roundly criticized for not rescuing nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in April from Chibok town. Most of the girls are still missing.
“I hope there will be change in security, electricity, health and education, all these things,” said Naja’atu Salisu, 20, who sells eggs to support her two children. “Jonathan doesn’t care about Nigeria, and when things happen he doesn’t give a damn. We have had so much violence here but he never gave any support to the victims, and look at what happened in Chibok. He never cared to save those girls or find their captors.”
In recent weeks, the Nigerian army, with the help of armies from neighboring countries, has driven Boko Haram out of more than 30 towns and villages and killed hundreds of its fighters.
Analyst Kew said the electoral commission’s decision to delay the balloting for six weeks because of the Boko Haram insurgency had helped Jonathan and the governing Peoples Democratic Party recover, as the party blitzed the media with reports of its successes against the militant group and poured money into the states to shore up its support.
Kew said Buhari still appeared to be slightly ahead. But his supporters in the north, convinced that he would win, will presume the vote was rigged if Jonathan comes out on top, possibly leading to violence.
If Buhari wins, there could be violence in the Niger Delta, Jonathan’s base of support, and Lagos, the closely contested commercial capital, could also see violent protests by supporters of either side once the results are announced, expected early next week.
Special correspondent Aminu Abubakar contributed to this report.