Nigerians headed to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president in a knife-edge vote against a backdrop of security fears but new technology delayed the process, affecting even the outgoing president.
Boko Haram appeared to carry through their pledge to try to disrupt the vote, attacking two polling stations in the northeastern state of Gombe, leaving at least two voters dead.
One election official said after the shootings in Birin Bolawa and Birin Fulani: “We could hear the gunmen shouting, ‘Didn’t we warn you about staying away from (the) election?’”
Polling stations had earlier opened at 0700 GMT across the country but the late arrival of officials and materials delayed the accreditation process before voting proper from 1230 GMT.
Handheld technology to read biometric voter identity cards is being used for the first time, which the country’s electoral commission hopes will cut voter fraud that has blighted previous elections.
An apparent card reader malfunction forced President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife Patience to hang around in the scorching heat in his hometown of Otuoke then leave while the problem was resolved.
“Maybe it’s me?” Jonathan joked to reporters in the southern state of Bayelsa but pleaded for calm as reports filtered in of similar delays around the country, including the capital Abuja.
The 57-year-old, in his trademark fedora hat and black suit, later returned and was accredited using the old manual system.
Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has voiced concerns at the technology, calling it untested, while the main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) has backed its use.
APC candidate Muhammadu Buhari, in a white robe topped with a traditional Muslim cap, was accredited without a hitch using the card reader in his hometown of Daura, in northern Katsina state.
Fourteen candidates are contesting the presidential poll, while 2,537 hopefuls from 28 parties are vying for 469 seats in the National Assembly at the same time.
– Partisan support
Jonathan’s PDP has been in power since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 but the result is far from clear this time, with the opposition in its strongest position ever.
The president’s inability to tackle Boko Haram — until recently — has dominated his tenure and while Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy on his watch, global oil shocks have hit the country hard.
Even Jonathan has admitted that the election is close.
“I cannot recall an election more important than this in the history of our nation,” he said on Thursday.
There was clear evidence of traditional support along regional lines, with Buhari hailing from the mainly Muslim north and Jonathan a son of the largely Christian south.
But political analysts say such backing is far from guaranteed at the election, of which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the international community had “high expectations”.
Voters were however annoyed at delays in authenticating fingerprints and other data, which the electoral commission said should take only 10 seconds under the new system.
“I was in the queue for almost two hours, and when it was my turn the officials spent close to 20 minutes before they could be through with me,” said Isu Sylvanus, a 38-year-old farmer, in Otuoke.
“They should discard with the card reader for this election because we are yet to master how to use it.”
– Tight security –
Security was tight nationwide, with fears running high of Boko Haram attacks on polling stations and a repeat of poll-related violence that saw some 1,000 people killed in 2011.
Streets were largely devoid of traffic as an eight-hour ban on vehicle movements began. Shops and businesses were shuttered while military helicopters were seen overhead in Abuja.
In the southeastern city of Enugu, a vehicle loaded with suspected homemade bombs exploded outside a polling station at a primary school but no one was killed or injured, police said.
The attack in Gombe, which has been repeatedly targeted by the militants, also saw election materials burned.
In the northeast, blighted by six years of Boko Haram violence that has left more than 13,000 people dead and 1.5 million homeless, voting was taking place in and around camps for the displaced.
Civilian vigilantes swept voters in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, with hand-held metal detectors as a precaution after a string of suicide attacks on “soft” targets in recent weeks.
Many of the thousands of voters were women widowed by the violence or separated from their husbands.
“I am ready to cast my vote at whatever cost,” said Tandalami Balami, who fled the recently liberated town of Gwoza to a camp in Maiduguri.