Nigerians voted in southwestern villages on Tuesday to decide the winner of a fiercely-contested state governorship that tests the most populous African country’s ability to hold peaceful elections.

In the past few weeks, attempts to re-run the disputed gubernatorial poll in Ekiti State have been marked by clashes between groups of supporters, a mysterious 24-hour disappearing act by a top election official and a protest by women who stripped to the waist to express their outrage.

The whole country now has its eyes on Oye, a patch of rocky outcrops, ragged woodland and hamlets where the final stage of the re-run is being held after intimidation by thugs derailed an earlier attempt to vote here last month.

Provided the ballot proceeds smoothly this time, election officials aim to put Ekiti – and Nigeria – out of its suspense by announcing an overall winner of the state government election later on Tuesday.

Turnout appeared to be low even several hours after polling stations opened in Oye, with bored-looking policemen overseeing a trickle of voters who turned up at one polling station set amid a cluster of single-storey tin-roofed homes and ramshackle shops.

“It is very peaceful, nobody has been intimidated,” said Stephen Manya, an official with the Independent National Electoral Commission. “The only disappointment is that the turnout seems to be very poor.”

Security forces were deployed heavily in the area. Soldiers dragged logs across the road to create road-blocks to monitor vehicles moving into Oye, home to some 18,000 votes. They searched the boots of some cars.

The contest in Ekiti is so heated in part because it is seen as a key battleground between the opposition Action Congress and the ruling People’s Democratic Party for influence over southwestern Nigeria, home of Lagos, the commercial capital, and the heartland of the Yoruba community, one of Nigeria’s main ethnic power blocs.

With many Nigerian politicians already looking ahead to general elections in 2011, the PDP’s performance in Ekiti is seen as a critical test of whether the party can demonstrate it still has the ability to deliver victory in closely-fought and intensely-scrutinised states. Top PDP politicians, including the president and vice-president, travelled to Ekiti during the campaign ahead of the re-run to rally voters.

“People have not been this desperate in an election before,” said Chief Adewale Fatona, an observer with the Africa Democratic Alliance, a non-governmental organisation. “It’s seen by the gladiators – PDP and AC – as a battle for the political soul of the southwest.”

At the same time, the conduct of the election itself has come under nationwide scrutiny following some of the worst outbreaks of political thuggery in Nigeria since the last general elections in 2007, regarded as some of the most violent and flawed polls in the country’s history.

Nigeria’s judiciary has taken a more pro-active stance than in the past and over-turned many election victories by ruling party candidates. Five gubernatorial elections out of Nigeria’s 36 states had to be re-run last year following decisions handed down by the courts.

Ekiti State, which has a population of some 2.3m, experienced some of the most flagrant abuses in 2007. A court ordered a re-run of the governorship election to be held in parts of the state following a petition by Kayode Fayemi, the AC candidate, who argued that the victory of Segun Oni, the PDP candidate, was flawed.

The re-run took place on April 25, but degenerated into chaos in several areas. The confusion deepened when the resident electoral commissioner mysteriously disappeared for a day after suggesting she was being coaxed into declaring an illegal result. She did not say by whom, though many Nigerian newspaper commentators interpreted her words as referring to the PDP. She then re-appeared to reclaim her post.

It also emerged last month that a governor from another state had been caught on tape promising to supply arms, uniforms and ammunition to ruling party politicians to rig the Ekiti result.

Such revelations have proved embarrassing for Umaru Yar’Adua, the president, who came to power at the 2007 polls and immediately promised to overhaul the country’s deeply flawed electoral processes.

He urged parliament last week to pass electoral reform legislation quickly. To many Nigerians, what happens next in Ekiti will be a more immediate test of the government’s commitment to upholding democracy.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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