SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

April 16, 2011

Nigeria votes on whether to keep accidental leader

JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press

KAYAWA, Nigeria — Voters in Africa's most populous nation are deciding Saturday whether to keep their accidental president in power, though unease among Nigeria's Muslims about the Christian leader could force a runoff in this oil-rich country where elections have long been marred by fraud and violence.

Bombings struck the country's northeast during last week's legislative elections, and another blast went off Saturday morning in a residential neighborhood of Maiduguri though no injuries were reported. Assailants also shot the rear windshield of an election official's vehicle there Friday night, authorities said.

"This election is very important," said Hamza Mohammed, 50, who serves as a local market chairman in the northern town of Katsina. "We want it to be conducted peacefully and we want peace to reign."

Voters must choose whether President Goodluck Jonathan should now be elected after taking over last year when his predecessor died in office following a lengthy illness. Jonathan is the candidate for Nigeria's long-dominant ruling party and is the clear front-runner, but several other candidates threaten to siphon off enough votes that it could go to a second round for the first time since Nigeria became a democracy 12 years ago.

Jonathan told reporters Saturday that Nigeria was experiencing a "new dawn" with the election, and that while he expected to win he would not interfere with the electoral process. Still, he said he hoped the weekend vote would be conclusive.

"I pray I don't go into a by-election because of the cost implications," he said wearing his signature black bowler hat and traditional caftan as he was surrounded by throngs of cameramen in his home state of Bayelsa. "We pray that whoever will win, will win."

The opposition candidates are capitalizing on discontent with the ruling People's Democratic Party. While voters were careful not to mention it by name, they blamed current leaders for a lack of a clean drinking water, schools, electricity and jobs in this country where most live on less than $2 a day.

"They don't care for the country," said Lawan Musa, 50, a local farmer who turned up Saturday to vote at a dilapidated tin-roof schoolhouse in the northern village of Kayawa. Inside one dirty classroom, a chalkboard bore questions for a computer science exam but the school doesn't even have a computer or constant electricity.

To win, Jonathan must receive a minimum level of support from across this enormous West African country of 150 million — a complicated formula somewhat similar to the American electoral college system. He cannot win the presidency outright unless he carries at least a quarter of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of states and the capital.

Nigeria, though, is largely split between a Muslim north that nears the Sahara Desert, and a Christian south of forests and swampland. While Jonathan is embraced in the nation's predominantly Christian south, many in the country's Muslim north believe one of their own should have had another turn after the Muslim president died in office in May 2010.

Among those looking to take away key votes from Jonathan in northern Muslim constituencies is a hometown candidate — former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. He ruled Nigeria shortly after a 1983 New Year's Eve coup, executing drug dealers and going after corrupt officials while also stifling freedom of speech and jailing journalists. Former anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu is also running.

Buhari, who has filed court challenges over voting irregularities after previous losses at the polls, said he would abide by Saturday's results no matter what.

"I already said this time around I'm not going to court," he told reporters after casting his ballot quickly among a swelling crowd in the narrow streets of Daura.

In the megacity of Lagos, streets normally clogged with traffic, vendors and pedestrians were desolate early Saturday. Young boys in one neighborhood took advantage of the deserted roads to set up soccer goalposts.

Jonathan's campaign posters feature prominently here, and voter Ogah Emmanuel said he would back the incumbent.

"He has a vision for this country, I will just try and give him the mandate to rule again and see the next four years," Emmanuel said. "He has promised us, as youths, what he's going to do. We know he's going to do it."

But Ita Emmanuel said he would be casting his ballot for opposition candidate Ribadu.

"I don't think the same people can bring change in the next four years," said the 32-year-old social worker.

Many hope Saturday's vote will help Nigeria atone for years of marred polls since it became a democracy only 12 years ago. International observers roundly rejected Nigeria's 2007 poll as being rigged and marred by thuggery, though it represented the nation's first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power.

Both Jonathan and the leader of the country's Independent National Electoral Commission have promised a free and fair vote Saturday. However, election workers have clamored for life insurance and police protection.

During legislative elections last weekend, violence erupted in northeastern Nigeria, where a radical Islamic sect operates, leaving a hotel ablaze, a politician dead and a polling station and a vote-counting center bombed.

Four people were arrested in Maiduguri following the explosion early Saturday and another one late Friday, authorities there said. Turnout however remained steady despite the pre-election violence.

On Friday night, Nigerian television networks began showing a video captured on YouTube of what appeared to be a woman at a polling place in last week's election pressing her thumb to a number of fraudulent votes. The individuals who posted the video did not respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press, which could not immediately verify the authenticity of the footage.

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Associated Press writers Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria; and Yinka Ibukun and Krista Larson in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.