Daura, Nigeria: Gunfire opened Nigeria’s delayed election on Saturday as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term in Africa’s most populous nation. Among the country’s first voters, he said he was ready to congratulate himself in a race seen as too close to call.
Police said the blasts in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, shortly before polls opened were for “security purposes” in a show of force to deter the Islamist militants that plague the region. Still, voting turnout appeared to be light as authorities tried to calm panicked, sceptical residents.
Gunfire also was heard in Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s restive south, where the military presence was heavier than in past elections. One convoy in Delta state contained more than 25 vehicles with battle-ready soldiers.
Buhari brushed aside reporters’ questions about whether he would accept a loss to top challenger Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice-president. The president, voting in his northern hometown of Daura, jokingly checked the name on his wife’s ballot.
A smiling Abubakar, after voting in his hometown of Yola in the northeast, told reporters that “I look forward to a successful transition.”
He previously pledged to accept the results, provided they are credible.
Buhari called the voting process smooth, but some polling stations in other parts of the country were late to open and some officials worried that heavy security could intimidate potential voters.
“What’s going on?” asked Buhari’s campaign spokesman, Festus Keyamo, saying electoral commission workers arrived at his polling station in Delta state an hour and a half late. Voting had yet to start in other parts of Delta and Anambra states.
Multiple election observer groups reported delays, including in Lagos, Africa’s largest city. In north-central Kaduna, lines were long but impatient while waiting for materials to arrive nearly three hours late. One state governor waited nearly an hour for a voting card reader to work properly, the Daily Trust newspaper reported.
Traffic restrictions were in place across the country, which also closed its borders. Ebrahim Mustafa, one Yola voter, was annoyed. “Transport is very hard to get,” he said.
Many Nigerians said the election will be decided by economic issues after a rough term for Buhari that saw a rare, months-long recession.
The president “has failed,” said David Ojo, a barber in Danbatta in northern Kano state who joined excited voters in supporting Buhari in 2015. They assumed the former military dictator would solve the insecurity crisis and that prosperity would follow, Ojo said. Neither has occurred.
The president in a final address to the nation on Friday vowed that the more than 72 million Nigerians eligible to vote would be able to do so in peace.
But the Boko Haram extremist group, its Daesh-affiliated offshoot in the northeast and various agitators across the country, including bandits, oil militants and youth hired by politicians to disrupt the vote, could have other plans.
Observers said the delay of the election from last week, blamed on logistical challenges, could favour Buhari and the ruling party, with some Nigerians saying they didn’t have the resources to travel to their place of registration a second time.
“After all, it is not my brother that is contesting,” said Patience Okoro in Agbor in the south. “So why will I kill myself or waste my time?”
The delay also could hurt the election’s credibility, some said.
“The postponement casts a lingering doubt on the neutrality of [the electoral commission] such that unless Atiku is declared the winner, many will still believe that [the commission] colluded with the government to rig him out,” said Jideofor Adibe, associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University.
Those who turned out, however, dismissed concerns about having to wait.
“It does not matter, it is for the will of God to take place,” voter Oseni Ukweni said in the capital, Abuja. “Everybody is excited to be here.”