AWKA, Nigeria (Reuters) - The incumbent governor of Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra state was on Sunday declared the winner of an election which voters, candidates and observers said had been marred by widespread irregularities.
The polls on Saturday in one of Nigeria’s most politically turbulent states were the first in a cycle of state and federal votes culminating in presidential elections due in April 2011.
Diplomats and investors hope Africa’s most populous nation can avoid a repeat of the chaos seen during the 2007 elections which brought President Umaru Yar’Adua to power, polls marred by widespread ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation.
But the signs from Anambra were not promising.
Voters complained their names were not on electoral rolls, while the main candidates — including the winner, Peter Obi — complained of irregularities. Some election observers said there seemed to have been a deliberate attempt to exclude many voters.
“Although the age-old inadequacies of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in terms of poor preparation, late arrival of electoral materials et cetera manifested (themselves), they were minimal,” Obi was quoted as saying by the Punch newspaper.
He had initially refused to vote on Saturday, saying his own family members were missing from the electoral list and that similar problems were being encountered across the state, but he later returned to the polling station to take part.
Obi won 97,843 votes, beating ex-state governor Chris Ngige of the opposition Action Congress party with 60,240 votes.
Former central bank governor Chukwuma Soludo of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) took 59,355 votes while ex-state governor Andy Uba of the Labour party polled 26,106 votes.
But voter turnout was extremely low, according to INEC figures. Just 301,232 of 1.84 million registered voters took part, a figure partly explained by so many names being missed off the electoral register, local election observers said.
Ngige rejected the result, while Soludo described it as a charade marred by “brazen manipulation.” But he accepted defeat.
“Let me use this opportunity to congratulate my friend Mr Peter Obi. In spite of the grave flaws, INEC has declared you winner of the election. The fight is not about us but about the future of Anambra state. You will have my support,” Soludo said.
Anambra has a history of political violence. There were a few reports of isolated scuffles but the elections passed without any major unrest.
Some checkpoints jointly manned by police and soldiers were withdrawn from the streets on Sunday and the state capital Awka and commercial hub Onitsha were calm, with many people in church, apparently relieved that there had been no violence.
“It is to the great credit of the people here that the election was run peacefully yesterday. However, our visits to polling stations at a number of locations suggest that there were irregularities,” British Deputy High Commissioner Richard Powell told Reuters.
“At some stations there was late arrival of materials, some of the (electoral) registers appeared to be incomplete. I would say a lot of work would need to be done if next year’s election were to run smoothly and I hope that the Nigerian authorities would address this as a matter of urgency,” he said.
President Yar’Adua — who has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia for more than two months — pledged to reform the electoral system after the chaotic 2007 polls, but reform bills he sent to parliament have yet to be passed into law.
Vice President Goodluck Jonathan nonetheless praised the conduct of the Anambra polls, saying “this was an indication that the electoral reforms of the present administration were beginning to have an effect on the nation’s political culture.”
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Alison Williams