Violence and fraud tarnish Nigerian elections

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Reports of scattered violence, delays, stolen, stuffed and missing ballots and an attempt to blow up the electoral commission headquarters, cast a shadow over Nigeria’s presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday.

Some of the hottest controversy was in the northern state of Katsina, home to both Umaru Yar’Adua, outgoing president Olusegun Obasanjo’s chosen successor, and Gen Muhamadu Buhari, a former military ruler and one of two main opposition contenders for the presidency.

Under the nose of foreign observers unsealed ballot boxes and election materials were taken from several polling stations by thugs, before voting was due to close. Later police, and not election officials, were handling result forms in one location visited by the FT.

Journalists witnessed similar scenes in other parts of the country and by afternoon opposition parties were claiming an attempt by the ruling People’s Democratic party to defraud the electorate.

Casting his own ballot, Mr Yar’Adua, a Muslim who most Nigerians expect to emerge from the chaotic process as president, said Nigerians should not expect a flawless vote. ”Only the book of God is perfect,” he said.

Saturday’s elections, which Mr Obasanjo was unable to contest having served his two-term limit, were the third since Nigeria’s military handed power back to civilians in 1999 after 16 years of misrule.

It was hoped they would provide an opportunity for Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer to consolidate its path to more representative and accountable government, with the first transfer of power from one civilian president to another set to take place on May 29th.

However many Nigerians, and foreign observers too, were left questioning the integrity of the process and wondering about the repercussions.

Max van den Berg, the head of a European Union observer mission, said there was less violence than in last week’s governorship elections, in which an estimated 50 people died. However reports he had received of ballot stuffing, multiple voting, delayed polling, missing ballot papers and vote buying from observer teams around the country, suggested little improvement since last weeks’ vote which was swept by the ruling PDP.

”The way the elections have been conducted to date has not lived up to the hopes of Nigerians,” he told the FT.

Before voting started, militants in Bayelsa state in the southern oil-producing delta launched an armed attack on the state government house. Police described this as an attempt to assassinate Goodluck Jonathan, the outgoing governor and Mr Yar’Adua’s running mate for the PDP.

Overnight on Friday, unknown assailants rolled a tanker laden with petrol and gas cylinders towards the gates of the electoral commission headquarters in Abuja, the capital, where it hit a street lamp and failed to detonate.

Mr Obasanjo told reporters that if they had succeeded these assaults would have ”gravely and grossly marred” the election. ”We must make the best of what we have in hand,” he then said.

Polls opened late across most of the country, following the late arrival of ballot papers from South Africa where they were reprinted last week to include Atiku Abubakar, the Vice President as an opposition candidate.

Problems distributing them to 120,000 polling stations around Nigeria resulted in no voting at all in some places. In village after village in Katsina state, residents complained that there were fewer ballot papers than voters.

In Lagos, the crowded commercial capital and a stronghold of anti-government sentiment, elections for both the senate and parliament were cancelled in most districts due to the omission of some political parties from the ballot. Voting for the presidency however was relatively orderly, with a low turnout amidst cynicism about whether any government would work to deliver services and improve daily lives.

”I am afraid for Nigerian kids, born and unborn,” said Prince Ayodele Oyekan, a traditional chieftain, at his run down palace on Lagos Island. ”We don’t know what this (election) will bring.”

In parts of Katsina state it brought out mobs of rampaging youths sympathetic to opposition leader Gen Buhari.

”We are going to stop those who deceive us. There has been no election in this place,” said Mustapha Al Kama, in the town of Malum Fashi. In the background mobs of young men set up barricades and burnt tyres, chanting ”no election, no election.” Police and soldiers were taking up position to control the riots.

Results are due by Monday. To avoid a run-off the winner must secure more than fifty per cent of the national vote, and at least 25 per cent in two thirds of the 36 states in the federation.

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