Abuja, Nigeria – The airport is abuzz with cars lined up in half-hour queues outside, their passengers glancing absently at their watches. In the domestic terminal, travellers brave huge check-in lines and jostle for attention at last minute ticket stands.
“It’s not normally like this,” says Samari Zakari, who works at the airport. “Since Monday it has been so busy.”
The reason is Nigeria’s presidential election on Saturday. The vote is fuelling a mass migration in the country of 170 million people, because citizens are obligated to return to the state in which they registered to cast their vote.
Among Abuja airport’s travellers is Ahmed Ahmed. He has stood in line for hours as he tries to catch a flight home to Taraba state, a day’s drive east from the capital.
“It costs a lot of money going there and coming back,” he laments, sweat dripping from his brow. “I don’t know if I will get on a flight. I just want to go and fulfil my civil responsibility.”
|Nigeria candidate Goodluck Jonathan|
Last minute scramble
Even election officials are not immune to the logistical difficulties. Joseph Chimi, a protocol officer for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), is trying to get to Sokoto, a city in Nigeria’s dusty northern perimeter, where he is supposed to be overseeing the vote.
“We don’t have transport,” Chimi says. “The airline is fully booked. We have to wait until tomorrow.”
If he makes it, Chimi will be presiding over the first democratic transfer of power since Nigerian independence.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has ruled Nigeria almost unopposed since the return from military to civilian rule in 1999. On Saturday, it may be knocked from its position of power by the All Progressives Congress (APC), a two-year old coalition led by the former military leader Muhammadu Buhari.
Chiefly, that is because many Nigerians are frustrated with the government’s perceived opacity and poor performance against Boko Haram, which has waged a six-year insurgency in the northeast.
“You can’t ignore the fact that there has been industrial scale corruption under this government,” says Martin Roberts, senior analyst for IHS Country Risk, an analytics firm. “They never made much effort to hide it, because they never envisaged that they’d face opposition.”
The challenger Buhari makes vague promises of a tougher stance on these problems.
Yomi Owonikoko, an Abuja taxi driver, is one of the former general’s supporters.
“In 2011, I fought for Goodluck, but he has disappointed me. Money did not come,” says Owonikoko, gleefully pointing out that his name means “money is the main thing” in the Yoruba dialect of southwestern Nigeria.
“This time I will vote Buhari,” he says, “because of corruption.”
Nigerian polling is not particularly reliable, but public figures dating from February suggest the two parties are neck-and-neck, with 42 percent of the vote each.
“It’s too close to call,” says Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst with the UK-based consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
The closeness of the race has ratcheted up tensions. Insiders for both parties say they are confident of victory. It seems likely that a tight result would be contested by the loser – especially if the vote is deemed to be manipulated.
The use of biometric readers for permanent voter cards will make that harder than in previous elections, but there may be glitches.
“Using this kind of technology for the first time is relatively high risk. It may not work across the entire country,” says Thomas Hansen, West Africa analyst for Control Risks.
Tens of people have already been killed in pre-election violence, and further bloodshed appears almost inevitable.
|Nigeria elections in one minute|
Observers say if Buhari loses, some of his supporters in the mostly Muslim north are expected to begin violent protests. Former fighters in the oil-rich Niger delta, now fat off amnesty payments from President Jonathan, may take up arms if he wins.
As the day nervously approaches, Nigeria is grinding to a standstill. Land and sea borders are closing, and military checkpoints have sprung up, holding up traffic in busy cities.
Because of political uncertainty, companies have stopped signing contracts. Bank branches were closed on Friday. The refrain “after elections” echoes round the hotel bars where Abuja businessmen hold their meetings.
In the north, where electoral violence has historically been most pronounced, citizens are stockpiling days’ worth of food to avoid venturing outside during volatile times.
Fearful of security forces, and depressed by the choices on offer, many Nigerians are choosing not to go to the polls at all.
“I would have voted for Jonathan,” says Bayo Oriadetu, a Lagos-based taxi driver. “But now I am just going to stay inside. Keep safe. That is the most important thing.”
Like him, many Nigerians just want the whole affair over and done with, so that life can go back to normal.