Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nigerian Presidential Vote is Extended Amid Glitches and Fears of Violence
Scores turned out Saturday to vote in a presidential election that analysts say is too close to call.

By Kevin Sieff
March 28 at 7:00 PM

KADUNA, Nigeria —Nigerians voted Saturday in the most bitterly contested election in the history of the country’s young democracy — a poll that will determine the next chapter in a long-standing fight against Islamist insurgents and the management of Africa’s largest economy.

Voting was extended Saturday in some polling stations because of technical glitches as the specter of post-election violence hangs over much of the country. Many worry that a conflict will erupt along the ethno-religious divide that consumes Nigerian politics. For now, President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, and the former military dictator, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim, appear to be in a dead heat.

This northern state has been a microcosm of the country’s volatile political rift. After the last presidential election, in 2011, Kaduna was devoured by violence that killed hundreds. Churches­ and mosques­ were torched, their skeletal remains still scattered across the state. Christians and Muslims fled in opposite directions.

Four years later, it’s unclear whether a contested election result will reignite those festering tensions. Over the past four years, while nongovernmental organizations and interfaith groups have launched peace building initiatives, Nigeria’s political elite have done little to bridge the divide. Jonathan and Buhari signed a pact Thursday, promising to avoid post-election violence, but many of their followers saw it as a hollow gesture.

“We’re scared,” said Rhoda Bala, standing in the charred remains of her home, which was destroyed after the 2011 election and never fully repaired. “Of course, we worry that what happened last time will happen again.”

Bala lives just miles from a polling site where Buhari had seemingly unanimous support and where a Jonathan victory appeared inconceivable to the voters.

“If Jonathan wins unfairly, this will be a country at war,” said Nura Hussaini, a carpenter. “And he can’t win fairly.”

The country is already at war with Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist movement that since 2012 grew steadily until its influence extended across northeastern Nigeria.

On Saturday, Boko Haram extremists killed 39 people, including a legislator, in the northeast, according to the Associated Press, in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the election. A multinational counter­­offensive has severely weakened the group in recent weeks, amid an emergency six-week election delay.

Jonathan supporters had praised him for the success of the anti-Boko Haram campaign, which culminated Friday in the taking of the group’s strategic headquarters. His detractors ask why it took so long to execute.

Already, Buhari’s party has said that if Jonathan, who has been in power since 2010, is declared the victor, it will set up a “parallel government.”

The Nigerian army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minimah, issued a warning at a news conference, saying that anyone who provokes conflict will meet “organized violence” from authorities.

While many Nigerians view politics through the prism of regional or religious loyalty, the election’s result will have an impact across much of West Africa, where the country is a massive cultural and economic force. It is a region dominated by Nigerian film and music, and one where oil revenue turned Nigeria into an engine of growth.

The falling price of oil, though, has raised new questions about Nigeria’s financial future, adding urgency to calls for an end to systemic corruption. Jonathan’s Central Bank chairman accused the government of losing $20 billion in revenue.

The next chapter in the fight against Boko Haram also remains a massive challenge. While the group appears to have been displaced from its former territorial strongholds, thousands of militants have fled into the Sambisa Forest and other rural enclaves, from which they could easily plan guerrilla-style attacks if the government’s counter­insurgency campaign dissipates.

But the next president’s greatest challenge might be convincing a divided Nigeria to accept his legitimacy. In Kaduna, even the most unifying figures expressed concerns about the coming days. Pastor Yohanna Buru, who has spent the years since the post-election violence in 2011 leading interfaith sessions, wonders what is next.

“The fact is, Christians want a Christian leader and Muslims want a Muslim one,” he said. “People are not educated on the issue of political violence.”

At a polling place where Jonathan supporters predominated, voters worried about a Nigeria with a Muslim leader.

“It would mean the Islamicization of Nigeria,” said Thomas Usman, an engineer. “We can’t allow it.”

Buhari has never given the impression that he will abandon secular rule in Nigeria. His party has publicly rebutted the idea, claiming that Jonathan supporters are attempting to divide the electorate along religious lines.

“I am not a religious fanatic of any sort, and I have never been,” he said at an interfaith meeting earlier this month.

Each side pointed to voting irregularities that appeared to favor the opposition — a shortage of ballots at certain sites, delayed openings at polling centers that left many voters in line for more than 10 hours.

“It’s a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise us because they know this is an opposition enclave,” said Danazumi Zakari, the chairman of the development association in Danbushia village and a Buhari supporter.

Zakari stood with hundreds of others in front of a local elementary school that was supposed to serve as a polling site. But by noon, five hours after many voters arrived, there were still no voting materials. Reports from Nigeria’s south, which is predominantly pro-Jonathan, also cited voting irregularities, suggesting that flaws were systemic and not politically calculated.

Voting ended Saturday without any sign of clashes between the two parties. But in Kaduna, voters remember the relative peace of Election Day 2011 and how quickly the state devolved into chaos after the results were announced.

Bala, 55, a Christian living in a primarily Muslim part of Kaduna, remembers returning to her home one day to find that it had been doused in gasoline and set on fire. She hasn’t found the money to fix it, so she and her children still live in the charred remains.

The words “Jesus loves you” can be made out in faded paint. This time, most of Bala’s relatives left Kaduna before the elections. Bala didn’t.

“I’m too scared,” she said. “And I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Kevin Sieff has been The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.

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