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Election Day in Nigeria Marred by Boko Haram Attacks and Voting Difficulties

As many as 39 people were reported killed in attacks by Boko Haram, and officials were forced to extend elections in parts of the country until Sunday due to difficulties registering voters.

by Katarina Hoije
Mar 28 2015, 10:50pm

Photo by Sunday Alamba/AP

Outside a polling station down a dusty side street in Mushin, a neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, a group of women huddled together under a plastic canopy and jobless men drinking beer shouted angrily. Seated at a small wooden table, an official from Nigeria's national election committee, INEC, tried to calm them down. Four hours after the polling station was scheduled to open, the door to the voting room remained locked.

"We've been waiting for over four hours now. Some people even went home," Fenke Oloyede, a 32-year-old trader, told VICE News."We want to cast our vote, to elect the president in our hearts, the leader we hope can change Nigeria."

Tens of millions of voters headed to the ballot boxes Saturday in what looks to be the closest presidential election in Nigeria's history. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, a member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), are neck and neck.

The elections, the fifth since military rule ended in 1999, took place amid deadly militant attacks, widespread technology issues registering voters, and the hacking of INEC's website.

Three people were killed in Ngalda, a town in the northern Yobe state, when suspected Boko Haram gunmen opened fire on a polling station. Attacks were also reported in Gombe state in the country's northeast. Eight people, including a candidate for the House Assembly, were killed in an attack in Dukku in Gombe state, an APC spokesman told AFP. Altogether, at least 15 people were killed in attacks across the northeast, according to Reuters. The Associated Press reported that as many as 39 people were killed.

Attacks and random shootings were reported in the Rivers and Delta states in the country's far south. In Rivers, one person was killed in what some witnesses said was political violence.

Related: Why electricity, or a lack of it, is an election concern for many Nigerians 

In Lagos, the country's financial capital in the southwest, security was on high alert. Streets that are usually clogged with traffic were eerily empty following a ban on motor traffic that was enforced by police and soldiers at checkpoints throughout the city. Most traders kept their shops closed.

Newly introduced biometric voting cards created technical difficulties that delayed voting at many polling stations. Some stations were moved for security reasons. Others simply failed to open.

In the northeast, where six years of Boko Haram violence has left more than 13,000 people dead and 1.5 million displaced, tens of thousands were expected to vote in special "safe zones" in or near their displacement camps. But for those who escaped Boko Haram's deadly campaign, elections were the last thing on their mind.

Marget Yohanna arrived in Yola, the capital of northeast Adamawa state, in early February after Boko Haram attacked her village. "All I think about is how I will feed my children," she told VICE News. "My youngest son is still with the rebels."

'All I think about is how I will feed my children. My youngest son is still with the rebels.'

Despite the deployment of forces by Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, Boko Haram has continued to attack villages and abduct women and children across the north. At least 1,000 people have been killed across the north so far this year.

On the eve of the presidential vote, the Nigerian army retook a Boko Haram stronghold in Borno state where the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, proclaimed a caliphate last year.

"These bandits, these thieves, they are killing our brothers. So far the government has showed very little will to fight back," Tayo Oni, a 25-year-old IT intern at the ministry of information told VICE News. Oni cast his vote in Mende, a densely populated lower middle class neighborhood about 10 kilometres north of the Lagos city center.

Historically, voters in Nigeria's elections have cast their ballots along ethno-religious lines: Muslims votes for Muslims and Christians vote for Christians. There's also a strong north-south divide. But in Mende, where the population is evenly split between Muslims and Christians and a majority are Yoruba, the largest ethnic group in the south, many voters said they would vote for Buhari, a Muslim and northerner.

Related: 'If Buhari returns we will all end up in jail': History hangs over Nigeria's election candidates 

"I want change so I'll vote for Buhari," Oni said. "I believe he's a man of his word and the right person for the job."

Omalinde Ikowu, a 31-year-old legal practitioner, told VICE News she was voting Buhari, a former military general who was head of state from 1983 to 1985 after seizing power in a coup d'etat, despite reservations about his ability to change the country.

"Now that we have seen Jonathan perform it's time to see what Buhari can do," Ikowu said. "If he doesn't perform we'll vote him out again."

The election is seen as the most closely contested in Nigeria's history, and the first with a legitimate chance of an opposition victory. Buhari has his strongest support in the northern part of the country, particularly in Kano and Kaduna States, and in Borno state in the northeast. In Daura, Buhari's hometown in the northern Katsina state, wicker brooms, the symbol of APC, had been hung in the streets. The ruling party's posters were nowhere to be seen.

Nearly 70 million of Nigeria's 173 million citizens were registered to vote Saturday. INEC announced in the afternoon that the vote would be extended to Sunday in areas where polling had been halted or, in some cases, not even started.

"We have experienced some minor problems such as malfunctioning card readers and voting material that didn't arrive on time," INEC Commissioner Femi Akimbe told VICE News. "Overall voting has been smooth and efficient in most places."

Akimbe couldn't say how many polling stations were affected by the extended vote.

Many fear more violence as the results are announced. In 2011, more than 800 people were killed in post-election violence after Jonathan defeated Buhari. Sporadic clashes already erupted in nearly all of Nigeria's 36 states in the weeks running up to the elections. The National Human Rights Commission expressed particular concerns about post-election violence in Lagos, Kaduna and Rivers states.

Results are scheduled be announced within 48 hours after the vote.