Michelle Faul and Jerome Delay, ASSOCIATED PRESS
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Millions of Nigerians turned out Saturday to vote in a presidential election that analysts say is too close to call between President Goodluck Jonathan and former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
Nearly 60 million people have cards to vote and determine the outcome of the first election in Nigeria’s history where an opposition candidate has a realistic chance of defeating a sitting president. The vote takes place amid an Islamic insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast in which thousands have been killed.
Boko Haram extremists waving guns forced voters to abandon polling stations in three villages of northeastern Gombe state, witnesses said. The militants have vowed to disrupt elections, calling democracy a corrupt Western concept.
Two car bombs exploded at two polling stations in south-central Enugu state but did not hurt voters, police said. Police detonated two other car bombs at a primary school in Enugu, said Enugu state police Commissioner Dan Bature. Boko Haram has been blamed for many car bombings but was not immediately suspected in the southeastern blasts far from its northeast stronghold.
President Goodluck Jonathan denied the attacks, saying the governor of the state told him there were no blasts.
The official website of the Independent National Electoral Commission was hacked but was quickly secured, said officials who said the site holds no sensitive material.
Thousands of people forced from the homes by the Islamic uprising lined up to vote at a refugee camp in Yola, the northeast Adamawa state capital which is hosting as many refugees as its 300,000 residents.
The oil-rich and heavily populated south is deeply contested and has become a political battleground since the main opposition parties united in a coalition two years ago, causing dozens of defections from Jonathan’s party.
Polling stations opened late in most places. Voters registration was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and still was ongoing in the afternoon, when voting was supposed to start. Men and women formed separate lines at many polling stations.
Earlier, officials rushed across the country delivering ballot materials by trucks, speedboats, motorcycles, mules and even camels, in the case of a northern mountaintop village, according to spokesman Kayode Idowu of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Good humor turned to anger and altercations as people waited hours to be registered to vote, only to find that machines were not reading new biometric voting cards.
Even the president was affected. Three newly imported card readers failed to recognize the fingerprints of Jonathan and his wife. He returned two hours later and was accredited without the machine using visual identification. Biometric cards and readers are being used for the first time to discourage the kind of fraud that has marred previous votes.
Afterward, Jonathan wiped sweat from his brow and urged people to be patient as he had, telling Channels TV: “I appeal to all Nigerians to be patient no matter the pains it takes as long as if, as a nation, we can conduct free and fair elections that the whole world will accept.”
Jonathan cast his ballot later in the day.
Social media was abuzz with the problem. One tweeter said they solved their issue by having an official remove the protective plastic film from the screen supposed to read a fingerprint on the card reader.
Trader Angela Okele expressed concern after getting accredited in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s southern oil capital. “The process is too slow, if it continues like this many people will not be able to cast their votes today,” she said.
Electoral officials stressed that once voting starts it will not end until the last person in line has voted, even if it takes all night.
Voting began promptly in a Christian neighborhood of northern Kaduna city though voters’ privacy was not respected. An AP reporter watched as people milled around a booth where a voter is supposed to be alone. Then, voters handed their unsealed ballots to an official who put the papers into the ballot box. Voters are supposed to put their own ballots into the box.
Jonathan and Buhari are front-runners among 14 candidates in the high-stakes contest to govern Africa’s most populous nation and its richest. In addition to the Islamic uprising, Nigeria is beset by militants demanding a better share of oil revenues who attack petroleum installations in the south and deadly land disputes across the middle of the country between semi-nomadic Muslim cattle herders and mainly Christian farmers.
This is only the eighth election since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. In a country steeped in a history of military coups and bloodshed caused by politics, ethnicity, land disputes, oil theft and, lately, the Boko Haram Islamic uprising, the election is important as Africa’s richest nation consolidates its democracy.
There’s a lot of international interest, especially among nervous foreign investors as Nigeria is Africa’s largest destination for direct foreign investment. Its oil-dependent economy is hurting from slashed petroleum prices.
Nigeria’s military announced Friday it had destroyed the headquarters of Boko Haram’s so-called Islamic caliphate and driven the insurgents from all major areas in northeast Nigeria. There was no way to verify the claim, which seems unlikely. Critics of Jonathan have said recent military victories after months of ceding territory to the Islamic extremists are a ploy to win votes — a charge the presidential campaign denies.
The failure of Jonathan’s administration to curb the insurgency, which killed about 10,000 people last year, has angered Nigerians in the north.
International outrage has grown over another failure — the rescue of 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram nearly a year ago. The extremists have abducted hundreds more since then, using them as sex slaves and fighters.
Jonathan and Buhari on Thursday signed a peace pledge and promised to accept the results of a free and fair election. But already dozens have been killed amid hate speech highlighting the religious, ethnic and geographic divisions among Nigerians.
The Islamic uprising has exacerbated relations between Christians like Jonathan, who dominate the oil-rich south, and Muslims like Buhari who are the majority in the agricultural and cattle-herding lands of the north. The population of 170 million is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.
Some 1,000 people were killed in rioting after Buhari lost to Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Thousands of Nigerians and foreign workers have left the country amid fears of post-election violence.
In 2011, there was no doubt that Jonathan had swept the polls by millions of votes.
Now the race is much closer. The game-changer that transformed Nigeria’s political landscape came two years ago when the main opposition parties formed a coalition and for the first time united behind one candidate, Buhari.
Delay contributed from Kaduna. Associated Press writers Shehu Saulawa in Bauchi and Hilary Uguru in Port Harcourt also contributed to this report.
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