Gunfire heard in cities as Nigerians finally go to the polls

Gunfire opened Nigeria’s delayed election on Saturday as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term in Africa’s most populous nation. Among the country’s first voters, he said he was ready to congratulate himself in a race seen as too close to call.

Police said the blasts in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, shortly before polls opened were for “security purposes” in a show of force to deter the Boko Haram extremists that plague the region. Still, voting turnout appeared to be light as authorities tried to calm panicked, skeptical residents.

Gunfire also was heard in parts of Port Harcourt in Nigeria’s restive south, where the military presence was said to be heavier than in past elections. One military convoy seen in Delta state in the south contained more than 25 vehicles with battle-ready soldiers.

Buhari brushed aside reporters’ questions about whether he would accept a loss to top challenger Atiku Abubakar , a billionaire former vice president. The president, voting in his northern hometown of Daura, jokingly checked the name on his wife’s ballot.

A smiling Abubakar, after voting in his hometown of Yola in the northeast, told reporters that “I look forward to a successful transition.” He previously pledged to accept the results of the election, provided they are credible.

Buhari called the voting process smooth, but in other parts of the country some officials reported concerns that some polling stations were late to open and that the heavy security presence could intimidate some potential voters.

“What’s going on?” asked Buhari’s campaign spokesman, Festus Keyamo, saying electoral commission workers only arrived at his polling station in Delta state an hour and a half after voting was to have started.

Elsewhere in Delta state, witnesses said electoral officials were still distributing voting materials. Multiple election observer groups tracking polling stations throughout the country reported scattered delays. One state governor waited nearly an hour for a voting card reader to work properly, the Daily Trust newspaper reported.

In Yola, an election observer said he was surprised to see fewer than 100 people in line at a polling station with more than 760 registered voters. “I was expecting to see a huge turnout,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Ibrahim Mustapha, one Yola voter, said he was annoyed he would be late to his polling unit. “Transport is very hard to get,” he said. Traffic restrictions were in place across the country, which also closed its borders.

The president in a final address to the nation on Friday vowed that the more than 72 million Nigerians who can vote in the election would be able to go to the polls in peace.

But the Boko Haram extremist group, its Islamic State-affiliated offshoot in the northeast and various agitators across the country, including bandits, oil militants and youth hired by politicians to disrupt the vote, could have other plans.

Observers said the delay of the election from last week, blamed on logistical challenges, could favor Buhari and the ruling party, with some Nigerians saying they didn’t have the money to travel to their place of registration a second time.

“I don’t have the zeal, time and resources,” said Patience Okoro in Agbor in the south. “After all, it is not my brother that is contesting. So why will I kill myself or waste my time?”

The delay also could hurt the election’s credibility, some said.

“The postponement casts a lingering doubt on the neutrality of (the electoral commission) such that unless Atiku is declared the winner, many will still believe that (the commission) colluded with the government to rig him out,” said Jideofor Adibe, associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University.

Those who turned out, however, dismissed concerns about having to wait.

“The delay, it does not matter, it is for the will of God to take place,” voter Oseni Ukweni said in the capital, Abuja. “Everybody is excited to be here.”

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