Kano, Nigeria – Polling stations have opened in Nigeria, the electoral commission said, as voters prepare to elect a new president in what is being seen as the closest contest in the country’s history.
“Polling stations have opened. Accreditation has started,” Independent National Electoral Commission spokesman Kayode Idowu said, despite reports of delays to the 8am (0700 GMT) start.
The process had not started at some locations in Kano, Lagos and Abuja because of delays in the arrival of INEC officials and election materials, the AFP news agency reported. Voting proper is due to start at 1:30pm.
Saturday’s election, delayed for six weeks while security forces attempted to subdue the armed group Boko Haram in the country’s northeast, will be the fifth since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
With dusk approaching on Friday in Kano, the biggest city in the country’s north, which has been hit by Boko Haram attacks, people waited patiently at ATMs as they prepared for a lockdown during voting.
Analysts are calling the poll a pivotal event for the young democracy. President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has ruled virtually unopposed for 16 years.
On Saturday, he could lose to former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who has contested three previous elections but never come close to winning.
Buhari’s opposition coalition, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has gained popularity by presenting itself as the face of change for voters who have grown frustrated by the government’s weak record on corruption and security.
Most Nigerians expect a tight race. Insiders on both sides say that they are confident of victory, and a February poll by Afrobarometer put the parties neck and neck with 42 percent of the vote each.
“The opposition has perhaps slightly less momentum than it did six weeks ago, but the outcome is too close to call,” said Thomas Hansen, West Africa analyst with the Control Risks group.
Observers on alert
A democratic transition of power would be the first in half a century of post-colonial independence. Heavy manipulation or a contested result would undermine Africa’s biggest democracy, and could lead to post-election violence.
Observers are watching for signs of foul play and, for the first time, permanent voter cards are being used with biometric readers, which should make vote rigging harder.
There are so many loopholes that politicians use, but we have put in place measures to check most.
“There are so many loopholes that politicians use, but we have put in place measures to check most,” Nick Dazang, a spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), told Al Jazeera.
But there will likely be technological glitches, one Western diplomat had told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
And confusion arose immediately over the card readers on Saturday as Jonathan was kept waiting for more than 15 minutes in his hometown because of an apparent malfunction.
Jonathan, wearing his trademark fedora and black suit, stood at a polling station with his wife Patience and his mother in Utuoke, southern
Both sides have been accused of buying up voter cards to suppress turnout in opponent strongholds. Fear of intimidation prompted a court to rule this week against military presence at polling stations.
At least 58 people have died in political violence in the run-up to the poll, according to the National Human Rights Commission.
Human Rights Watch said over 800 people were killed in riots after the last election in 2011, which was seen as Nigeria’s most credible since independence. The majority of the killings took place in the mostly Muslim north, where Buhari – who hails from the region – has strong support.
If his party loses, analyst expect violence to erupt again in that region.
“It will be all the same patterns as 2011, but this time the stakes are higher,” Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst with the UK-based analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft, said.
If Buhari wins, former rebels in the Niger Delta – Jonathan’s home region – have threatened to again take up arms.
Posters and radio adverts across the country are calling for peace. “Your blood is worth more than the ambition of any politician,” went a message broadcast on one radio station on the eve of the vote.
(Additional reporting by AFP)