DAURA, Nigeria – Nigeria began counting votes in a presidential election on Saturday marked by an extremist attack, late-opening polling stations and a surprise loss for top challenger Atiku Abubakar in his own hometown.
The voting took place a week after a painful election delay and final results are expected on Tuesday, though plenty of work remained as many voters in Africa’s largest democracy still waited in line at sundown. Observers and security forces gave scattered reports of torched ballot boxes, soldiers firing on suspected vote-snatchers and people illegally selling their votes for as little as 500 naira ($1.38). Several people were killed.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who seeks a second term after largely failing to deliver on fighting extremism and corruption, was first in line at his polling station in his northern hometown of Daura. After cheekily peering at his wife’s ballot, he told reporters he was ready to congratulate himself on victory. He refused to say whether he would accept a loss.
Billionaire former vice president Abubakar, who had told reporters that “I look forward to a successful transition,” was embarrassed by his 186-167 loss to the president at his polling station under a tree in Yola. A large crowd of Buhari supporters exploded in cheers at the news.
Observers had said the election was too close to call.
Election day began with multiple blasts in Maiduguri, the capital of northeastern Borno state. Security forces at first denied an attack but eventually acknowledged that extremists had “attempted to infiltrate” the city by launching artillery fire. One soldier was killed and four were wounded, a security official said, insisting on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The attacks, claimed by the Islamic State West Africa Province, frightened some voters away from the polls. “I feared for my life,” resident Haruna Isa said. “I don’t trust anyone anymore.” He stayed home and wished the candidates luck.
Asmau Hassan said she lost her voting card in the confusion after one explosion struck her displacement camp. She wanted to vote for Buhari but said “I have just turned into an onlooker now.” Authorities confirmed another attack on a military base in Geidam in northeastern Yobe state, saying it prevented the governor from voting.
In Rivers state in Nigeria’s restive south, police confirmed three people were killed in election violence. Military convoys rumbled through the region, their presence heavier than in past elections.
Buhari called the voting smooth, but a coalition of civic groups said multiple polling units had not opened more than four hours after the official start. Delays were reported in parts of the south and in the north-central state of Nasarawa as well as in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, where thugs set ballots at one polling station ablaze.
Many of Nigeria’s more than 72 million people eligible to vote pressed on, some walking for hours along roads deserted by traffic restrictions. Raphael Dele, a popular singer in Yola, said he walked over 6 miles to his polling station “because there is no room for excuses.”
Many Nigerians, appalled that their country has recently become the world leader in the number of people living in extreme poverty, said the election will be decided by economic issues. The country suffered a rare, months-long recession under Buhari when global oil prices crashed, with unemployment growing significantly to 23 percent and inflation in the double digits.
Some on Saturday noted a lower turnout than four years ago, when many Nigerians hoped that Buhari, a former military dictator, would tame multiple security crises.
“Really this time, there were not many people from what I observed,” said Habiba Bello, a political party agent who attended vote-counting in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. One nearby station showed just 102 voters out of the nearly 400 expected.
In the dusty schoolyard, party agents recited aloud in unison as polling officials held ballot papers aloft one by one. “I’m feeling fine now!” declared Nura Abba, there for the ruling party.
An electoral commission presiding officer, Kabiru al-Haji Musa, held up another station’s presidential results, scrawled in ballpoint pen. Buhari received 88 votes. Abubakar had just eight.
Elsewhere, votes were counted by the light of mobile phones after sundown.
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 resources to travel a second time across the West African nation to their place of registration.
Some also warned the delay could hurt the election’s credibility.
“Unless Atiku is declared the winner, many will still believe that (the electoral commission) colluded with the government to rig him out,” said Jideofor Adibe, associate professor of political science at Nasarawa State University.
Some of those who turned out, however, dismissed concerns about having to wait.
“This election means so much to me. It means the future of Nigeria. The future of my children unborn. And the future of my entire family,” voter Blessing Chemfas said.
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