Nigerians went to the polls on Saturday in what looks set to be the first genuine electoral contest since the end of military rule in 1999, in which an opposition candidate has a fighting chance of unseating the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan.
Seeking a second elected term, Jonathan is facing off against former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in a tense race with an electorate divided along ethnic, regional and in some cases religious lines.
Twelve other minor candidates are also running.
Polls were meant to open for accreditation at 120,000 ballot stations at 8 a.m. (0300 EDT), with actual voting starting at 1.30 p.m. and continuing until the last person has voted. With 56.7 million eligible voters, it could drag well into Sunday.
However, problems quickly emerged as electronic scanners failed to recognize some cards and fingerprints, including that of Jonathan, who had to wait more than 40 minutes as officials vainly tried to get four different machines to work.
"My own (card) and that of my wife, we have some problems but they are sorting that out," he told reporters, adding that he was nevertheless confident the election would go smoothly.
Biometric card readers were introduced to prevent the rampant ballot box stuffing and multiple or otherwise fraudulent voting that have characterized past polls.
Registration started on time in the northern city of Kaduna, which erupted in violence after the last election in 2011, but elsewhere voters had to wait in the brewing tropical heat as election officials failed to turn up.
"It is 9 am now and we have not seen anybody. They were suppose to be here before we arrived but they are not," said Linus Okorie, one of 60 voters getting impatient at the Life Camp polling station in Abuja.
The start was also delayed in at least three polling stations in the southern city of Lagos, and some in Kaduna reported technical glitches.
The vote is seen as a referendum on the record of Jonathan, a former zoology professor whose time in office has been blighted by massive corruption scandals and an insurgency by Islamist Boko Haram militants in which thousands have died.
A credible and peaceful poll would open a new chapter in the history of Africa\’s most populous nation, biggest economy and top oil producer, whose five decades of independence have been tarnished by graft, military coups and secessionist movements.
"These elections are a defining moment for Nigeria. There is stiff competition. People have a real choice about who they want as leader," former Malawian President Bakili Muluzi, who is leading a Commonwealth observer mission, told Reuters.
"The danger is post-election. We\’ve been assured by the peace accord between the leaders but how that trickles down is the danger," he said, referring to a second pact signed between Jonathan and Buhari on Friday not to whip up violence.
Yet the poisonous rhetoric emanating from both sides during the campaign, as well as some scuffles and shootings, have raised doubts over whether such agreements will be respected.
When Buhari, a northern Muslim, lost to Jonathan, a southern Christian, in 2011 it triggered rioting in the mostly Muslim north that killed 800 people and destroying the homes of 65,000.
Before voting started, bomb blasts struck two polling stations in eastern Nigeria, although they did not claim any lives.
In a televised address on Friday Jonathan, who is the son of a canoe carver in the oil producing Niger Delta, told anybody with violent intent to "think again".
However, his entreaties did little to reassure many Nigerians, who were queuing up en masse on Friday to withdraw cash, buy dwindling fuel supplies and stock up on provisions at supermarkets.
"I filled my tank just in case I need to flee," said James Ike, a banker in Kaduna. "But I hope I don\’t have to do that."
In a climate of mutual suspicion, Buhari\’s All Progressives Congress warned against "devilish moves by those … bent on rigging the elections and plunging the nation into crisis."
Buhari\’s top selling point is a belief that he didn\’t steal during his 1983-85 presidency, a rare feat for a senior Nigerian politician.
His reputation as an experienced army leader also plays well with voters critical of the government\’s failure to protect civilians from Boko Haram. Nigeria\’s armed forces have still not rescued 200 school girls who were kidnapped by militants in April last year.
However, his authoritarian rule, in which journalists and political opponents were jailed and drug traffickers executed, is not fondly remembered by everyone.
The sect has been routed in the past six weeks, though it is not clear if that will assist Jonathan.
As always in the nation of 170 million people, ethnic and regional sentiments remain paramount. Buhari is hugely popular in the north, Jonathan, in the south and east.
That could leave the mostly ethnic Yoruba but religiously mixed southwest, centered around the commercial capital Lagos, the kingmakers. They voted for Jonathan last time but since then Yoruba elite have rallied decisively around Buhari.
SOURCE – REUTERS