Nigerians turned out in large numbers on Saturday to vote in a presidential election that is being seen as a test of the country’s fragile democracy.
The presidential elections are the fourth since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1998. Elections in 2003 and 2007 were marred by allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and low turnout.
Election officials and observers reported substantially higher numbers of voters than in previous elections, with many saying that it was a higher turnout than last weekend’s legislative elections.
The election pits president Goodluck Jonathan, the first head of state from the troubled oil-producing Delta region, against former military ruler General Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, and former anti-corruption tsar Nuhu Ribadu.
Mr Jonathan is expected to win the most votes, but perhaps not enough for outright victory after his People’s Democratic Party saw its majority in the Senate and House of Representatives cut in last weekend’s legislative elections.
He will need to win at least 25 per cent of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states.
General Buhari, the Congress for Progressive Change candidate, is expected to garner a significant chunk of the vote-rich Northwest, there is the outside possibility of a run-off.
In the event of victory for Mr Jonathan , who assumed the presidency when Umaru Yar’Adua died last May, he will be the first president elected from a minority ethnic group in a country whose politics have been dominated patronage and regional rotational system, “zoning” power between the north and the south.
He is running on a platform to fix the country’s ailing electricity system, improve education and wean the country off its dependence on oil.
Twice postponed for logistical reasons, this election has been largely incident-free, although bombings in Maiduguri in northern Nigeria marred the run-up to the vote.
Results will start trickling in early on Sunday morning, with a declaration from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) expected later in the week. However, officials at polling stations will announce the results as counting at the thousands of centres countrywide ends on Saturday evening.
“I promised a free and fair election and I am committed to delivering on that promise,” said Dr Jonathan minutes after he cast his vote at Ituoke, his home town in Bayelsa State. “I have said that I will use myself as a guinea pig. If I lose I will give up the presidency.”
Early reports by observers were positive but cautious. Former Canadian Prime Minister, Joe Clark who heads the National Democratic Institute observer team reported that problems encountered during last weekend’s elections appeared to have been rectified.
“It seems quite encouraging so far, although I would be cautious to make any conclusions at this early stage. All the same, political parties are well represented at all the sites we have visited.
“Problems of missing names on the voter register have been addressed by circulating a supplemental list. The other thing, which we had not expected is the circulation of a list of illegal voters by the INEC,” Mr Clark said, from a polling station in Abuja