AP Talks to IRI’s Dan Fisk About Nigeria’s Elections

Opposition parties gain power in 1st round of Nigeria’s election
The Associated Press
Jon Gambrell

IBADAN, Nigeria – Nigeria’s voters pressed their ink-soaked fingers to ballots Saturday, braving bomb attacks and communal violence to vote in the first round of crucial April elections in the oil-rich nation.

Voters from Nigeria’s arid north to the mangroves of its southern delta decided who should sit in the country’s National Assembly, with fragmented preliminary results suggesting opposition parties made huge strides against the governing People’s Democratic Party. Meanwhile, violence erupted in northeast Nigeria, where a radical Islamic sect operates, leaving a hotel ablaze and a voting station bombed.

Still, the vote appeared largely peaceful, despite the bombing Friday of a Niger state election office that killed at least eight people and wounded more than two dozen. National election chairman Attahiru Jega told journalists Saturday night that he received several reports of ballot box stealing and violence, but that the polls appeared to have taken place smoothly after being delayed twice in the last week.

“Evidently, politicians are still living in the past,” Jega said.

The election was to be held April 2, but Jega stopped it after ballot papers and tally sheets went missing in many of the country’s polling places. Jega postponed the election, and about 15 per cent of the races still weren’t held Saturday as misprinted ballots delayed them.

Dan Fisk, an observer with the International Republican Institute, said it appeared election officials used the extra time well.

“The electoral authorities seem to have taken steps to remedy the problems seen last week,” Fisk told The Associated Press.

Yet problems persisted. Some voters complained their names remained missing from registration lists, while ballot printing errors angered many waiting in line across the nation. In Ibadan, a city 90 miles (150 kilometres) inland from Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, ballot papers still were missing from some polling places into the afternoon. At one station, voters simply walked away without casting ballots.

“We’re expecting it to be different,” said T.L. Adeyemo, 76, a local government chairman. “What happened last week was an embarrassment to all of us.”

Violence appeared centred in Maiduguri, a city in northeastern Borno state where a radical Muslim sect known locally as Boko Haram has been killing politicians and security agents for months. A bomb exploded at a polling station near a market, killing at least one person, officials said. Gunmen also shot and killed a politician with the All Nigeria People’s Party and set fire to the Maiduguri International Hotel.

Violence occurred in several other regions Saturday, Jega said, with police arresting seven people in Nasarawa state for stealing a ballot box.

Still, voters trekked to the polls and waited patiently in the sun through an accreditation period before voting actually began.

“This is the best election I have seen in my life,” said Abdulrahman Isa, a 71-year-old farmer in the northern Nigerian state of Gombe.

Across the predominantly Muslim north, officials saw a high turnout by women for the polls — something very unusual in the traditional Islamic society there.

Preliminary results seemed to suggest opposition parties made gains against the governing People’s Democratic Party, which has used muscle and money to manipulate elections in Nigeria since the nation became a democracy. Significant losses by the governing party could affect the presidential and gubernatorial polls the country will hold in the coming weeks.

In Ibadan, one polling station in an opposition neighbourhood saw political thugs rush the ballot boxes before voting, witnesses said. In years past, that could have ended the election then. On Saturday, however, people pushed and shoved back, calling in the police to secure the area.

After the vote, election officials held up each of the hundreds of ballots, allowing a crowd of about 200 people to count along with them to find a result. A soldier parted the gathered crowd with gentle waves, though many kept their eyes on his Kalashnivkov rifle that had three clips of ammunition taped together underneath it.

The Accord Party, an unknown group in the rest of the country, largely won the polls in the area. The crowd grew electrified as it realized the governing party lost.

Later, officials took the ballots to an election centre, where officials used the light of their mobile telephones to tabulate the results. A noisy generator powered the only two functioning light bulbs.

“We were counting the voters together,” said Lukman Kuku, 26, who oversaw elections at the troubled polling site. “They liked it. They loved it. … There could be no rigging.”

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