Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Nigerian presidential rivals cast ballots in delayed election as blast hits northeast

Many worried that the week delay would lead to a lower turnout

Nigerian voters queue to cast their votes at Shagari Health Unit polling station in Yola, Adamawa State, last month. AFP
Nigerian voters queue to cast their votes at Shagari Health Unit polling station in Yola, Adamawa State, last month. AFP

Millions of Nigerians, including celebrities and politicians, headed to the polls on Saturday despite reports of explosions and clashes in the country’s northeast where militant groups warned people to boycott the vote.

President Muhammadu Buhari and his main challenger, businessman Atiku Abubakar, cast their ballots in Nigeria's presidential election early on Saturday as voting began after a week's delay in Africa's biggest economic power.

Analysts say the vote is too close to call, with the outcome set to hinge on which man voters most trust to revamp an economy still struggling to recover from a 2016 recession.

Mr Buhari, a former military ruler who was later elected president, is seeking a second term in charge of Africa's most populous nation and top crude producer. Mr Atiku, a former vice president, has pledged to expand the role of the private sector.

The two candidates lead a field of more than 70 challengers.

In a moment widely shared on social media, Mr Buhari jovially peers over as his wife folds her ballot paper before depositing it in the box. While many joked that the incumbent was making sure he would get at least one vote other than his own, some said the move violated electoral rules.

Last Saturday, the election was postponed around five hours before polling stations were due to open and there are concerns that the week's delay might hurt turnout.

With 72.8 million eligible voters, the pictures of long queues outside polling stations were all but inevitable.

The electoral commission blamed logistical factors for last week's delay and denied political pressure was behind the decision. Presidential elections in 2011 and 2015 were also delayed over logistics and security concerns.

Mr Buhari, who voted in his hometown of Daura in the northern state of Katsina, said "I will congratulate myself, I’m going to be the winner" when asked by reporters if he would congratulate his rival should he win the election.

Mr Atiku later cast his ballot in the eastern Adamawa state.

"I look forward to a successful transition," he told reporters shortly after voting.

Nigerians queued at polling booths around the country where voting was set to begin at 8 am local time.

Several polling stations across the country were, however, slow to open, Reuters witnesses said.

"I’ve been to 10 polling units today. I’ve been redirected many times," said Victor Kanoba a voter in Lagos.

Near the capital, State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode shared pictures as he cast his ballot in the town of Epe around 2 hours from Lagos. “I urge Lagosians and Nigerians to exercise their civic duties in a peaceful manner and cooperate with the officials to ensure a free, fair and credible election,” he wrote.

"This was somewhat expected given the logistical challenges of getting all of the materials to the polls in time for opening at 8 am," John Tomaszewski, an observer with the joint US National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute delegation, said referring to the delays.

"This will be something to watch throughout the day."

In the capital Abuja, Chukwunwike Ogbuani, a lawyer, said he was worried by the delay in opening polling stations.

"This polling booth they say has about 20,000 registered voters... if there is at least up to 50 to 60 per cent turnout it will be difficult to finish in a day. I don’t see everybody that is here voting within the stipulated time."

Former president Goodluck Jonathan also shared pictures of himself voting alongside his mother and wife in the southeastern Bayelsa state.

As well as politicians, Nigerian celebrities joined the calls to get people out to the polls.

Rapper and producer David Adedeji Adeleke, known as Davido, urged people to get out saying it was “showtime”.

Nigerian actress Rita Dominic shared a video of her discussing her hopes for the election and what she wants to see coming out of the vote.

“I want to see a Nigeria that … will enable every one of its citizens be able to afford basic healthcare. I want to see a Nigeria where when somebody falls ill you don’t have to fly or find ways out of the county to find healthcare abroad,” she said.

In the country's northeast, where insurgent groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province have waged a decade-long war, blasts were heard in the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Boko Haram had warned people not to vote.

Meanwhile, residents in the village of Geidam in Yobe state, which neighbours Borno, said they fled an attack by suspected militants.

"We have along with our wives and children and hundreds of others fled. We are right now running and hiding in the bushes," said Geidam resident Ibrahim Gobi, speaking by phone.

Police said in a statement that there was no attack on any part of Maiduguri.

Security sources said that militants had struck at parts of the city and witness said they had heard gunshots and Nigerian air force jets were flying overhead.

Elections did not start until about 8:30 am in most polling stations in Maiduguri, with voters saying the delay was caused by late arrival of election officers.

"Many of us have been here since 7:30 am but did not see the election officers until 8:15 am," Abba Mustapha said at Shehuri North ward in Maiduguri.

Updated: February 23, 2019 03:49 PM