Nigeria votes in crucial Presidential Election

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is the clear favourite in the election.

Updated: Apr 16, 2011, 16:54 PM IST

Lagos: Nigerians gathered at polling stations on Saturday for a crucial Presidential Election as Africa`s most populous nation bids to hold its cleanest polls for head of state in nearly two decades.

Two explosions hit the northeastern city of Maiduguri late Friday and early Saturday, but it was unclear whether there were casualties. The same city was hit by two blasts during parliamentary polls last week.

However, early signs related to organisation were positive, with polling stations in various areas of the country opening on time and even earlier where large numbers of voters had turned up.

President Goodluck Jonathan, the clear favourite in the election, arrived at his polling place in his home state of Bayelsa in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, but declined to comment, saying he would speak later.

The first four hours were dedicated to voter "accreditation" -- a verification exercise that will be matched up against the number of ballots cast, one of the safeguards in place in an attempt to stop rigging.

Actual voting was to begin at 12:30 pm (1130 GMT).

At a number of polling places in and around the capital Abuja, accreditation started early, with long lines of voters waiting.

"There is no more rigging," said Eghosa Osaguona, a 46-year-old trader at an Abuja polling unit. "More and more people are aware of their rights."

Jonathan has staked his reputation on the conduct of the polls, repeatedly promising a free and fair election in the continent`s largest oil producer long held back by corruption and with a history of vote fraud and violence.

His main challenger is ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who benefits from significant support in the country`s north and has developed a reputation as an anti-graft figure, though his regime in the 1980s was also accused of outrageous rights abuses.

A crowd of hundreds loudly cheered him as he arrived at his polling place in the northern city of Daura on the edge of the Sahara. He also did not comment, but planned to speak later.

An enormous effort has been undertaken to hold a credible vote, but violence poses a risk, with bomb blasts and other attacks having killed dozens in the run-up to the polls, including during last week`s parliamentary ballot.

Tremendous hopes have been placed in the recently appointed head of the electoral commission, Attahiru Jega, a respected academic who ordered a series of reforms.

More than 73 million people registered to vote in the vast West African nation.

But in an example of how difficult bringing about such change in Nigeria can be, a first attempt at holding parliamentary polls on April 02 had to be called off when material and personnel failed to arrive in a large number of areas.

When the parliamentary poll finally did go forward on April 09, officials and observers described it as a significant step forward for the country, though it was far from perfect.

There has been clear enthusiasm among voters to cast ballots, and a number of them stayed behind in some areas last week to record the counting process on mobile phones. Clips of vote counting were posted on YouTube.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party lost ground in last weekend`s parliamentary vote, and opposition parties restarted negotiations this week in a bid to team up against Jonathan.

But those talks collapsed, leaving the opposition with a difficult path to unseat an incumbent running for a party that has won every presidential poll since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

Jonathan, 53 and a southern Christian, is the first president from the Niger Delta region.

He has had an almost accidental rise to power that culminated with him being thrust into office last year following the death of his predecessor, Umaru Yar`Adua.

His calm approach has led some to call him weak, while others say it is better suited to bringing about change in Nigeria, a nation of some 250 ethnic groups and a population roughly split between Christians and Muslims.

Buhari, 69, is a northern Muslim who has run for president twice before. Many in the north see him as an opportunity to return power to their economically marginalised region.

There are two other main candidates in the race: Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of the country`s anti-graft agency, and Ibrahim Shekarau, governor of the northern state of Kano.

Bureau Report