Abuja, Nigeria: Some frustrated Nigerians cast their ballots with flashlights while others stood watch at their polling stations as counting got under way late Saturday amid fears of vote tampering after a day of delays in Africa's most populous nation.
Election officials blamed the delays on logistical issues, though other observers pointed to the upheaval created by a redesigned currency that has left many unable to obtain bank notes. The cash shortage affected transport not only for voters but also election workers and police officers providing security.
Voting ended well beyond schedule in many places after delays but some were still voting in a few areas where the exercise stretched into the night. In the northwest Bauchi state, Lagos-based Channels TV reported that voters were still voting using their torchlights at around 9 p.m.
Nigerians go to the polls
And in Abuja and Delta state, voters stuck around to monitor the process and ensure the results were not tampered with.
“Nightfall has come — anything can happen (now),” Torke Ezekiel said after casting his ballot.
While there were fears of violence on Election Day, from Islamic militants in the north to separatists in the south voting was largely peaceful Saturday though a dramatic scene unfolded in the megacity of Lagos in the mid-afternoon.
Associated Press journalists saw armed men pull up to the voting station in a minibus, fire shots in the air and snatch the presidential ballot box. The shots sent voters screaming and scattering for cover, and ballots strewn across the floor.
And in the northeast state of Borno, at least five people including children, were wounded when Boko Haram extremists attacked voters in Gwoza town, local authorities said.
Mahmood Yakubu, head of Nigeria’s election commission, said national collation of results in the presidential election would commence at noon on Sunday. In 2019, the winner of the presidential election was announced four days after the voting day.
“We are making very steady progress and we will continue to ensure that nothing truncates our democracy or truncates the will of the Nigerian people,” said Yakubu, the election chief.
However, Mucahid Durmaz, senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company, said voting “has been very complicated for Nigerians.”
There have been “widespread complaints about late-arriving officials, nonfunctioning machines, low presence of security and attacks on polling stations," he added.
Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is stepping down after two four-year terms in Nigeria, a West African country where unemployment has soared to 33% even as one of the continent's top oil producers.
Out of the field of 18 presidential candidates, three front-runners emerged in recent weeks: the candidate from Buhari's ruling party, the main opposition party candidate and a third-party challenger who has drawn strong support from younger voters.
But it remained unclear how many voters were deterred because of the cash crisis, which has left Nigerians with funds in their bank accounts unable to obtain the cash they need for things like gas and taxis.
“Voters said the new naira policy made it very difficult for people to transport themselves to their polling units and they were also hungry. So they felt rather than going out to burn energy, they should just stay back home,” said Anthony Adejuwon who monitored the election in Osun state.
The vote is being carefully watched as Nigeria is Africa's largest economy. By 2050, the U.N. estimates that Nigeria will tie with the United States as the third most populous nation in the world after India and China.
It is also home to one of the largest youth populations in the world with a median age of only 18. About 64 million of its 210 million people are between the ages of 18 and 35.
Favour Ben, 29, who owns a food business in the capital, Abuja, said she was backing third-party candidate Peter Obi.
“Obi knows what Nigerians need,” she said. “He knows what is actually disturbing us and I believe he knows how to tackle it.”
Buhari's tenure was marked by concerns about his ailing health and frequent trips abroad for medical treatment. Two of the top candidates are in their 70s and both have been in Nigerian politics since 1999.
By contrast, at 61, Obi of the Labour party is the youngest of the front-runners and had surged in the polls in the weeks leading up to Saturday's vote.
Still, Bola Tinubu has the strong support of the ruling All Progressives Congress party as an important backer of the incumbent president. And Atiku Abubakar has the name recognition of being one of Nigeria's richest businessmen, having also served as a vice president and presidential hopeful in 2019 for his Peoples Democratic Party.
For the first time this year Nigeria's election results will be transmitted electronically to headquarters in Abuja, a step officials say will reduce voter fraud. Officials also say they'll be enforcing a ban on mobile phones inside voting booths to prevent vote-buying: images of the votes are usually sent as proof if people have received money to pick a certain candidate.
Since officials in November announced the decision to redesign Nigeria's currency, the naira, new bills have been slow to circulate. At the same time, older bank notes stopped being accepted, creating a shortage in a country where many use cash for daily transactions.
Durmaz says the currency change should have been laid out in a longer timeline before or after the election. Lengthy waits to vote “will likely disenfranchise voters, deepen the electoral disputes and trigger violence.”
“Delays along with reports of voter suppression in Lagos risk aggravating the disappointment among passionate voters in a highly-anticipated election and cause an explosion of violent protests in urban centers,” he warned. “Any outbreak of violence could rapidly embrace ethnic and religious undertones, given the considerable impact of ethnic and religious differences on elections in Nigeria.”