Explosions, delays mark Nigeria's presidential election

Gunfire and explosions marred the opening of voting Nigeria's delayed election on Saturday as President Muhammadu Buhari sought a second term.

President Muhammadu Buhari vies for 2nd term in office, main challenger is former vice-president

Eligible voters in the country of 190 million people must choose between 76-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari, left, and top challenger 72-year-old Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice-president. (Luc Gnago/Temilade Adelaja/Reuters)

Gunfire and explosions opened the voting in Nigeria's delayed election on Saturday as President Muhammadu Buhari sought a second term. The vote, widely seen as too close to call, also was marred by hours-long delays at polling stations across the West African country.

Police initially said they triggered the blasts in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, shortly before polls opened, in a show of force to deter the Islamic extremists that plague the northeast. But security sources said a rocket hit a displaced persons' camp, while a blast at an army garrison killed one soldier and injured four others.

A statement issued later by Borno state police said Boko Haram extremists "attempted to infiltrate" the state capital by launching artillery fire, likely to disrupt the elections. The statement said "some missiles strayed into vulnerable locations."

The army also confirmed a "futile" attack on a security outpost in Geidam in Yobe state. Voting turnout appeared to be light as authorities tried to calm panicked, skeptical residents.

Gunfire also was heard in Port Harcourt in Nigeria's restive south, where the military presence was heavier than in past elections. One convoy in Delta state contained more than 25 vehicles with battle-ready soldiers. Later in the day, soldiers in Rivers state fired on suspected ballot snatchers, with four people arrested.

Buhari brushed aside reporters' questions about whether he would accept a loss to top challenger Atiku Abubakar, a billionaire former vice-president. The president, first in line to vote in his northern hometown of Daura, jokingly checked the name on his wife's ballot.

Nigerians "are behaving themselves," the president said.

A smiling Abubakar, after voting in his hometown of Yola in the northeast, told reporters that "I look forward to a successful transition." He previously pledged to accept the results, provided they are credible.

Former vice-president Atiku Abubakar leaves a polling station with his wife Amina Titilayo Atiku-Abubakar, right, after casting their votes in Yola, Adamawa State. He is the main challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari in Saturday's presidential vote. (Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images)

Buhari called the voting process smooth, but a coalition of civic groups said multiple polling units had not opened more than four hours after the official start. Delays were reported in Delta, Anambra and Akwa Ibom states as well as in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

Local broadcaster Channels TV showed a crowd still waiting after noon for the start of voting in the north-central state of Nasarawa. Abubakar's party called such delays "deliberate," claiming overwhelming support there.

In north-central Kaduna, lines were long but impatient while waiting for materials to arrive nearly three hours late. Elsewhere, some officials worried that heavy security could intimidate potential voters.

Traffic restrictions were in place across the country, which also closed its borders. Raphael Dele, a popular singer in Yola, said he had walked over 10 kilometres (6 miles) to his polling station "because there is no room for excuses."

Sharp rise in unemployment

Many Nigerians said the election will be decided by economic issues after a rough term for Buhari during which the country suffered a rare, months-long recession and unemployment grew significantly to 23 per cent.

The president "has failed," said David Ojo, a barber in Danbatta in northern Kano state who joined excited voters in supporting Buhari in 2015. They assumed the former military dictator would solve the insecurity crisis and that prosperity would follow, Ojo said. Neither has occurred.

Muhammadu Buhari casts his vote at a polling station in Daura, Katsina State. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

In a final address to the nation on Friday, Buhari vowed that the more than 72 million Nigerians eligible to vote would be able to do so in peace.

But the Boko Haram extremist group, its Islamic State-affiliated offshoot in the northeast and various agitators across the country, including bandits, oil militants and youths hired by politicians to disrupt the vote, could have other plans.

"People are very sensitive about this election" in the north because both candidates hail from the region, said A. Rufai Mohammed, voting in the northern city of Kano. Yet he was concerned about the lower turnout from four years ago and blamed apathy. "What we are looking for is results, not excuses," he said of the president.

Voters balk at 2nd registration

Observers said the delay of the election from last week, blamed on logistical challenges, could favour Buhari and the ruling party, with some Nigerians saying they didn't have the resources to travel to their place of registration a second time.

"After all, it is not my brother that is contesting," said Patience Okoro in Agbor in the south. "So why will I kill myself or waste my time?"

Electoral officials check voters' documents during Nigeria's presidential election at a polling station in Kazaure, Jigawa State. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

The delay also could hurt the election's credibility, some said.

"The postponement casts a lingering doubt on the neutrality of [the electoral commission] such that unless Atiku is declared the winner, many will still believe that [the commission] colluded with the government to rig him out," said Jideofor Adibe, associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University.

Some of those who turned out, however, dismissed concerns about having to wait.

"It does not matter, it is for the will of God to take place," voter Oseni Ukweni said in the capital, Abuja. "Everybody is excited to be here."