Abuja, Nigeria, AP—Nigerians turned out en masse to vote in a presidential election Saturday that analysts say is too close to call between President Goodluck Jonathan and former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari.
A car bomb exploded at a polling station in south-central Enugu state but police said none of the voters lining up were hurt in the 7:30 am blast.
Police detonated two other car bombs at the scene, a primary school, said Enugu state police Commissioner Dan Bature. The explosion occurred far from the northeastern center of the Islamic uprising by Nigeria’s home-grown Boko Haram.
Voters in the oil-rich south who traditionally support President Goodluck Jonathan could determine the outcome of the first election in Nigeria’s history where an opposition candidate has a realistic chance of defeating a sitting president.
Polling stations opened late in many areas as officials rushed across the country delivering ballot materials by trucks, speedboats, motorcycles, mules and even camels, in the case of a northern mountaintop village, according to spokesman Kayode Idowu of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Streets are deserted. Only electoral officials, observers, security officials and media with relevant stickers are allowed to use the roads. All sea and land borders are closed as a security precaution.
One motorcycle rider balanced cardboard panels to construct voting booths on his head, and another tucked a ballot box under his arm as they sped up the road north from Abuja, the capital in central Nigeria.
Some good-humored voters smiled when officials arrived late at stations where registration was to start at 8:00 am (7:00 am GMT) followed by voting from 1:30 pm (12:30 pm GMT). Men and women formed separate lines at many polling stations.
Nearly 60 million people have cards to vote.
Jonathan and Buhari are front-runners among 14 candidates who want to govern Africa’s most populous nation beset by a northeastern Islamic uprising.
Buhari, resplendent in white robes, was the first voter to have his fingerprints taken at a polling station that opened a half hour late in Daura, his hometown in northern Katsina state.
The registration of Jonathan, in black with his trademark Fedora hat, was delayed in the southern oil-rich state of Bayelsa. Three newly imported card readers failed to recognize his fingerprints, and his wife’s. He returned two hours later and was accredited without the machine. Biometric cards and readers are being used for the first time to discourage the kind of fraud that has marred previous votes.
Afterward, Jonathan wiped sweat from his brow and urged people to be patient as he had, telling Channels TV: “I appeal to all Nigerians to be patient no matter the pains it takes as long as if, as a nation, we can conduct free and fair elections that the whole world will accept.”
Trader Angela Okele expressed concern after getting accredited in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s southern oil capital. “The process is too slow, if it continues like this many people will not be able to cast their votes today,” she said.
Electoral officials stressed that once voting starts it will not end until the last person in line has voted, even if it takes all night.
At Jere, a town 38 miles (60 kilometers) north of Abuja, electoral officials said they had only one card reader, which has a capacity for about 700 voters, and twice as many people lined up. An official was sent by motorcycle to collect another.
This is only the eighth election since Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960. In a country steeped in a history of military coups and bloodshed caused by politics, ethnicity, land disputes, oil theft and, lately, the Boko Haram Islamic uprising, the election is important as Africa’s richest nation consolidates its democracy.
There’s a lot of international interest, especially among nervous foreign investors as Nigeria is Africa’s largest destination for direct foreign investment. Its oil-dependent economy is hurting from slashed petroleum prices.
Nigeria’s military announced Friday it had destroyed the headquarters of Boko Haram’s so-called Islamic caliphate and driven the insurgents from all major areas in northeast Nigeria, a claim that seems unlikely. There was no way to verify the report. Critics of Jonathan have said recent military victories after months of ceding territory to the Islamic extremists are a ploy to win votes—a charge the presidential campaign denies.
The failure of Jonathan’s administration to curb the insurgency, which killed about 10,000 people last year, has angered many Nigerians especially in the north.
International outrage has grown over another failure—the rescue of 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram nearly a year ago. The extremists have abducted hundreds more since then, using them as sex slaves and fighters.
Jonathan and Buhari on Thursday signed a peace pledge and promised to accept the results of a free and fair election. But already dozens have been killed amid hate speech highlighting the religious, ethnic and geographic divisions among Nigerians.
The Islamic uprising has exacerbated relations between Christians like Jonathan, who dominate the oil-rich south, and Muslims like Buhari who are the majority in the agricultural and cattle-herding lands of the north. The population of 170 million is almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.
Some 1,000 people were killed in rioting after Buhari lost to Jonathan in the 2011 elections. Thousands of Nigerians and foreign workers have left the country amid fears of post-election violence.
In 2011, there was no doubt that Jonathan had swept the polls by millions of votes. Now the race is much closer. The game-changer that transformed Nigeria’s political landscape came two years ago when the main opposition parties formed a coalition and for the first time united behind one candidate, Buhari.