Tens of millions of Nigerians went to the polls on Saturday, a week after a last-minute election delay, as Africa’s most populous nation struggles with challenges including a stumbling economy and an ongoing Islamist insurgency by Boko Haram militants.
Just before polls opened, one soldier was killed and 20 others were injured as Boko Haram fighters waged attacks in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the largest city in the northeast.
The election delay was announced just five hours before polls opened, amid reports that voting material had not been delivered to all parts of the country.
The postponement was expected to push turnout lower. Nigeria has no absentee voting system, and so many who returned to their hometowns to vote on Feb. 16 returned to where they live, not being able to afford a week away from work.
The delay also sparked widespread doubts in the integrity of the poll, with the ruling and main opposition parties trading accusations of backdoor influence over the commission.
There were reports of sporadic violence, but there appeared to be no major disruptions — even though some polling station opened so late that voting in those areas could be extended to Sunday. Results are expected by early next week.
The ruling party is represented by the incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, a 76-year-old former army general whose election in 2015 marked the first time a candidate had beaten a sitting president.
Atiku Abubakar, a 72-year-old veteran politician and business tycoon, is Buhari’s main challenger, though more than 60 other candidates from minor parties are also in the mix.
One of the most pressing campaign issues has been rampant violence around the country. More civilians were killed in targeted attacks in Nigeria last year than in Yemen or Afghanistan, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Boko Haram and a breakaway faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State have terrorized northeastern Nigeria for a decade, and simmering tensions between farmers and herders have exploded across most of central and northwestern Nigeria.
Days before the initial vote date, a large convoy carrying Borno’s governor was attacked by Boko Haram. Government officials claimed only three were killed, but witness accounts cited by Reuters indicated that at least 100 may have died and between 100 and 200 were taken captive. Boko Haram has equated voting with apostasy, warning civilians to stay away from polling stations.
Analysts say hundreds were killed in dozens of events related to the election since late last year.
“In the capital, Abuja, the process of opening the polling stations was long, cumbersome, things were moving slowly,” said John G. Tomaszewski, Africa director at the International Republican Institute, an American organization monitoring the election. “But by and large, people are being very patient, which is great to see.”
Buhari has implored voters not to stop his “moving train,” which he says has gained momentum against insecurity and is on its way to reviving a sluggish economy in which almost a quarter are unemployed.
Nigeria receives significant support from international organizations, as well as the United States and Britain, which held Nigeria as a colony until 1960. The U.S. government gave Nigeria more than $450 million in 2018, mostly for humanitarian aid relating to food and health. Buhari has traveled to Washington to meet President Trump, and Nigeria works with the U.S. military on regional security issues.
“I will congratulate myself. I’m going to be the winner,” Buhari told reporters after he voted this morning in his hometown in Katsina state, the country’s poorest.
Buhari’s voter base is particularly strong in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim and overwhelmingly poor northern area. He is perceived to be fairly untainted in a political arena renowned for corruption.
“This election is about who can be the bigger transformer,” said Abubakar Garba Mshelia, who teaches political science in the northeastern city of Yola and supports Buhari. “We need a credible person, with a plan. Buhari has proved he is without fear or favor.”
Buhari’s opponents say he lacks the energy to meet Nigeria’s mounting crises. Buhari spent almost half of 2017 in a London hospital nursing an undisclosed illness. He has denied that he uses a body double.
Abubakar, who is popularly referred to by his first name Atiku, became enormously wealthy through an oil and logistics company he founded in 1982. Since then, he has been in and out of politics, sometimes on Buhari’s side. At one point, he was vice president.
He has four wives and 28 children, and his autobiography is titled “Making Money.” His supporters hope he can attract foreign investment and spread around Nigeria’s immense wealth. Despite being Africa’s largest economy, almost 100 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day.
Atiku has been subject to extensive corruption allegations. In 2005, as vice president, he was involved in an FBI investigation of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.) for alleged bribery and collusion to help Jefferson win business contracts in Nigeria.
In 2010, a United States Senate report accused Atiku and Jennifer Douglas, his American fourth wife, of laundering over $40 million into the United States between 2000 and 2008.
Atiku’s campaign has repeatedly accused Buhari’s party of rigging the election, though the evidence they have provided has not been verified by independent observers.
Doubts of the election’s fairness, however, were deepened in January when Buhari dismissed Nigeria’s chief justice over his alleged failure to declare his assets before taking office. The chief justice would be the arbiter of any election-related disputes, and so the timing of his removal provoked alarm.
Nigerian politics has been criticized as being a closed club for elites to compete over extensive patronage systems and access to the country’s massive and mostly state-owned oil wealth.
In an op-ed, Nigerian novelist and satirist Elnathan John wrote that neither Buhari nor Abubakar represented “any discernible political ideology.”
“Almost every prominent politician supporting the opposition candidate has at some point been a member of the governing party. Quite a few government ministers and prominent politicians publicly supporting President Buhari were until recently members of the opposition,” he wrote. “Switching political parties not only is simple but also often needs no justification.”
Nigeria also comes close to dead last in the number of women it elects. Experts predict the number of women to win seats is likely to fall below 5 percent in this election.
In Yola, many women lamented the paucity of choices in this election, regardless of gender.
“We don’t have leaders who stand by us,” said Blessing Williams, 24, who works at a modest tailor shop in Yola. “Ours have no humility even though they are only where they are because of us small people.”