April 21, 2011 / 5:53 PM / 7 years ago

Nigeria leader says polls to continue despite riots

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said on Thursday the final round of elections would go ahead next week despite rioting which is feared to have killed hundreds of people across the mostly Muslim north.

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan casts his ballot in his home village of Otuoke, Bayelsa state April 16, 2011. REUTERS/Joseph Penney

Angry youths launched violent protests in northern cities this week after Jonathan, a Christian from the south, was declared the victor of a weekend election, defeating former military 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.

“These acts of mayhem are sad reminders of the events which plunged our country into 30 months of an unfortunate civil war,” Jonathan said, referring to killings that led to a conflict in which one million people were killed in the 1960s.

Shehu Sani, president of Nigeria’s Civil Rights Congress, said he believed as many as 260 people had been killed across the north, with the heaviest toll in the city of Kaduna and the towns of Zonkwa and Kafanchan to its southeast.

A tally of figures from Red Cross officials, health workers and Reuters witnesses who visited morgues showed the toll was at least 130, but that was only in a few major towns and cities.

Africa’s most populous nation is due to hold governorship and state assembly votes in most of its 36 states on Tuesday. There are fears many voters will not turn out after the unrest.

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said it would delay the polls by two days in the northern states of Kaduna and Bauchi, two of the worst hit by violence, to allow the security situation to improve.

Hundreds suffered gunshot and machete wounds, some of them children, and thousands were displaced by the violence, which has since been brought under control in major cities by curfews and a heavy military presence.

“These disturbances are more than mere political protests. Clearly, they aim to frustrate the remaining elections. This is not acceptable,” Jonathan said. “Enough is enough.”

He said he had authorised the security forces to use “justifiable force” to stop the violence.

Some of the rioters chanted Buhari’s name as they went on the rampage. The former general has distanced himself from the violence and called the riots a spontaneous outpouring of anger.

The government says they were “unprovoked and premeditated.”

HIGH STAKES

Violence in the north has in the past led to reprisal killings in the south. More than 8,000 people fled to an army barracks in the southeastern city of Onitsha, according to the Red Cross, although so far there has been no trouble there.

The police urged people to vote in Tuesday’s governorship polls — which follow last Saturday’s presidential vote and parliamentary polls the previous week — and warned youths to avoid being used by “politicians desperately wanting to win.”

But despite soldiers beefing up security in main cities, isolated acts of violence have continued. Houses were burnt on the outskirts of Kano late on Wednesday and there were reports of more killings in some southern parts of Kaduna state.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said at least 12,000 people had been displaced in Kano alone.

Jonathan was steadfast.

“I assure you all that calm is being restored in troubled parts of the country and that the elections scheduled for next Tuesday will go on as planned,” he said.

State governors are powerful figures in the African oil producer, controlling budgets larger than those of some African countries and wielding influence over policy.

The state elections had already been expected to be the most volatile of the three polls but the violence this week has raised the stakes even further.

Homes of ruling party members, electoral commission offices and police stations have been targeted, as have members of the National Youth Corps, who are helping run the elections.

Additional reporting by Mike Oboh in Kano, Joe Bavier in Kaduna, Abdulwahab Muhammad in Bauchi; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Sophie Hares

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