Nigerians go to the polls in closest-run vote in country’s democratic era


Nigerians went to the polls on Saturday to elect their next president, marking the end of a draining election campaign notable for the emergence of a credible alternative to the country’s two dominant political parties.

The main candidates have spent five months crisscrossing Africa’s largest democracy as voters prepare to elect a replacement for President Muhammadu Buhari, who is standing down after eight years in power.

On Saturday, the voting process was marred by delays and violence in parts of the country.

Voting was due to begin at 8.30am but officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did not arrive in many areas until hours later.

In parts of the south-eastern Imo state, election officials had not arrived by 3:30pm — an hour after voting was scheduled to close.

At one polling unit in the Surulere district of Lagos people waiting to cast their ballot were sent running after armed men fired several gunshots into the air. Many had waited hours to vote. 

In parts of the Lekki district, machete-wielding youths disrupted the process.

Mahmood Yakubu, INEC chairman, said at a press briefing in the capital Abuja that armed men had attacked polling units in the southern state of Delta, carting away at least two biometric voter machines.

Yakubu said violence was also recorded in the northern states of Borno and Katsina. Yakubu apologised for the delays.

A total of 18 candidates are formally running, although only three stand a realistic chance of winning what is expected to be the closest presidential vote in Nigeria’s democratic era.

Bola Tinubu, governor of Lagos for eight years to 2007, of the ruling All Progressives Congress, and Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president making his sixth run for the job, from the People’s Democratic party, have hopes of victory.

So too does Peter Obi, a businessman and former state governor whose underdog campaign in the upstart Labour party has galvanised voters disillusioned by Nigeria’s two major parties.

Rarely since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 has there not been an incumbent or former military ruler on the presidential ballot, which analysts said presented an opportunity this time to elect a different type of leader. Buhari, military head of state for a period in the 1980s, has stood in all but one of the six elections to date, casting a shadow over Nigeria’s democracy.

Voters will also choose 109 senators and 360 members for the lower house of representatives.

Nigeria presidential election

Woman in colourful head scarf

Read our collection of key stories on Nigeria’s election this Saturday

The botched rollout of newly redesigned currency notes and paralysing fuel shortages have dominated news headlines in the weeks leading up to the votes.

Repeated questions about the ages of the two main party candidates — Tinubu is 70 and Abubakar 76 — have also been aired on the campaign trail across a vast country where the median age is 18. Both men have been dogged by historical allegations of corruption which they deny.

Pre-election polls predicted a win for Obi in a high-turnout vote, but the large number of people who prefer not to share their voting intentions with pollsters has made analysts wary of reading too much into surveys.

Previous Nigerian elections have been plagued by low turnout; a little over a third of eligible voters cast ballots in 2019. More than 93mn Nigerians are registered to vote this time.

A win for Obi, 61, whose campaign focusing on frugality and accountability has attracted a following among disaffected urban youth in the country’s south, would be a huge political shock in a country that since 1999 has only elected presidents from the two big parties.

To win the presidency a candidate must secure the most votes and cross the constitutional threshold of obtaining at least 25 per cent of the ballots cast in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the capital city Abuja. If no candidate clears that bar, there would be a run-off vote for the first time in the country’s history.

The winner will be declared by the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Nigeria’s electoral agency, at a ceremony in Abuja. Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, an analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development think-tank, said that although results will begin trickling in on Sunday, the declaration may not come until Wednesday.

Rampant insecurity, public sector corruption and the parlous state of an economy crippled by rising prices and high unemployment are among the biggest concerns for voters. The proposed removal of petrol subsidies that cost the country more than $10bn last year is another big issue.


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