April 28, 2011 / 9:23 AM / 8 years ago

Fearful voters trickle out to northern Nigeria polls

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Voters trickled out to polling stations on Thursday in two states in northern Nigeria where rioting killed hundreds last week, under the watchful eye of policemen on horseback and soldiers manning barricades.

Electoral officers attend to voters at a polling unit in Okepadi neighbourhood during the governorship election in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria, April 26, 2011. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Nigeria’s ruling party won 16 of the 24 states which held governorship elections on Tuesday but the polls were delayed by two days in Kaduna and Bauchi in what the electoral commission said was an attempt to allow “tempers to cool”.

Youths launched violent protests in northern cities last week after President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, was declared winner of the presidential election, defeating ex-army ruler and northern Muslim Muhammadu Buhari.

Churches, mosques and homes were set ablaze in the worst unrest for years as Buhari supporters rejected the outcome. A civil rights group said more than 500 people were killed in the space of a few hours in three towns in southern Kaduna alone.

“Last week this place was filled with people. Now you can see it is empty. People are intimidated by the huge military presence, many are frightened,” said Habu Garba, 28, an unemployed graduate.

“I’ve seen people tearing up voter cards and telling people ‘I will never vote again.’ Kaduna has lost faith in democracy, Kaduna has lost faith in the process. It is sad,” he said.

Many polling stations closed early for lack of voters.

Soldiers laid out roadblocks of tyres, Kalashnikovs hanging from their necks. Anti-bomb squad officers held barking dogs on leashes on street corners.

Security agents outnumbered voters at many polling units in Kaduna, the state capital, but in smaller towns, residents complained the military presence was not strong enough.

“This is a bad situation, we’ve lost many friends. Turnout is low because people are displaced, people are afraid, and people are dead,” said Gaiya Stephen, 49, a civil servant voting in the small town of Kachia just outside Kaduna.

Houses all along the main street were burned down in revenge attacks in the mostly Christian town. Anti-Buhari graffiti was scribbled on the charred walls of a mosque.

“The problem is with some people it’s either you win or you destroy,” said Stephen. “You have to understand people are scared and nervous we could be attacked again.”

RULING PARTY DOMINATES

The state governorship races are the last stage of an election process so far deemed by observers and many Nigerians to have been the fairest in decades, despite some of the country’s worst political violence for years.

Ballot box snatching and thuggery marred state governorship elections in other parts of Nigeria on Tuesday, although there was little of the orchestrated mob violence which had undermined similar votes in the past.

The opposition in Bauchi accused the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of using security to intimidate voters and prevent their polling agents from monitoring events.

“It is rigging galore here in Bauchi,” Yusuf Tuggar, the governorship candidate for the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), told Reuters by telephone.

He said armed men in uniform had attempted to steal two of three ballot boxes at his own polling unit and that he had given chase, filming part of the pursuit on his mobile phone.

With results in from all 24 states where governorship elections were held on Tuesday, the PDP held on to 15 but lost four — Ogun and Oyo in the southwest, Nasarawa in the centre and Zamfara in the north.

But it did well in other parts of the north, winning Kano from the opposition, the most populous state in the region, and sweeping all assembly seats in the northern state of Sokoto.

Members of Nigeria’s youth corps, young graduates doing national service, have been key to this year’s elections, helping to run polling units and monitor vote counts.

At least two were directly targeted and killed in last week’s violence and many others attacked, leading hundreds to withdraw from the process and leaving polling units at risk of being understaffed. Students have been brought in to help.

“We received some training, enough. We’re not nervous because you can see the number of police here,” said Hussaini Mohammed, 22, a student at a polling unit in Kaduna.

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