JOS, NIGERIA // Violence marred the weekend's start of elections in Nigeria, stoking fears that Africa's most populous nation will fail to hold its first credible and peaceful elections since military rule ended in 1999.
The bombing on Friday of an election office in the state of Niger killed eight people and wounded more than two dozen others. In Saturday's voting for the country's National Assembly - the first of three rounds that will also elect a president and state governors - there also were several reports of ballot-box stealing and violence. Still, the polls appeared to have taken place smoothly after being delayed twice in the last week.
It is not only Nigerians themselves, however, who are keen to see this month's elections go smoothly. Despite the ongoing crises in Libya and the Ivory Coast, European, North American and other African capitals are also looking on intently, for the stakes are high.
The balloting could mark a turning point in the Nigerian leadership's half-hearted embrace of democracy to date. Or, they could send the nation, which produces more gas and oil than any other nation on the continent, in the opposite direction, casting a shadow over democratisation efforts across Africa, where 17 more elections are set to take place this year.
The European Union, the Commonwealth and the African Union, have deployed observers throughout most of the country to monitor the vote, though some of the monitors are avoiding areas where violence is most likely.
The US president, Barack Obama, dispatched his assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Johnnie Carson, to Nigeria on Friday to underscore Washington's call for credible elections.
"Nigeria has an historic opportunity to allow the Nigerian people to elect their local, state and national representatives in a climate free of violence and intimidation," the State Department spokesman said on Friday.
Nigeria's elections are also taking place against the backdrop of upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, said Chris Fomunyoh of the US-government funded National Democratic Institute.
"People are paying attention to these elections in spite or because of the new wave of transitions spreading [across the Arab world]," said Mr Fomunyoh, who has observed all three Nigerian elections since the end of military rule 12 years ago. "Lots of Africans are wondering, 'What does this mean for the rest of Africa?,' for other regimes in power in Africa who lack legitimacy," he added.
In Nigeria's volatile Middle Belt region, where Human Rights Watch estimates nearly 4,000 people have been killed in brutal violence that has frequently taken on religious and ethnic dimensions, Hadjiya Khadija Gambo Hawaya has been watching the revolutions of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other Arab states with keen interest.
"It's a great mistake to believe, to assume, that this could not happen in Nigeria," Ms Hawaya said, citing the discontent of many of Nigeria's 150 million citizens. While their leaders amass vast personal wealth from the country's enormous oil revenues, the majority of Nigerians live on less than two dollars per day.
Whether the country's ruling People's Democratic Party, loyal to President Goodluck Jonathan will make room for opposition views and voices in the new government remains to be seen.
The party first has to clear the hurdle of re-election, as many Nigerians dissatisfied with their leaders are pinning their hopes on popular opposition candidate General Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria in the mid-1980s who is supported by most northern voters.