, ABUJA, Mar 31 – Nigeria’s main opposition on Tuesday claimed victory in the country’s tense general election as former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari pulled ahead of President Goodluck Jonathan in the vote count.
If confirmed, it would be the first democratic change of power in the history of Africa’s most populous country.
With 32 out of 37 results in, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) had won 19 states with Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) on 12 plus the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.
Asked if the APC was claiming victory over the PDP, party spokesman Lai Mohammed told AFP: “Yes.
“This is the first time the opposition has voted a government out of power in Nigeria’s history,” he added.
Buhari, 72, stretched his lead to nearly 2.9 million votes over 57-year-old Jonathan, with most of the remaining states in the opposition candidate’s northern heartland.
They included the northeastern states hit hardest by the six-year Boko Haram insurgency.
The former military ruler won the key prize of Lagos in the southwest but at one point his lead was cut to 500,000 votes after landslide victories for Jonathan in his southern Delta homeland.
The vote pitting Jonathan against Buhari was the closest election contest ever in Africa’s biggest economy which has a population of 173 million.
The opposition leader, making his fourth run at the presidency, has been buoyed by frustration over endemic corruption, criticism over Jonathan’s handling of Boko Haram and a stronger opposition.
– Sit-down protest –
There was a brief protest by Jonathan’s PDP before the count resumed on Tuesday.
Former Niger Delta minister Godsday Orubebe accused elections chief Attahiru Jega of being “partial” and “selective”.
Orubebe claimed Jega had refused to investigate PDP complaints about big wins by Buhari in northern states but had launched a probe into claims by the APC of irregularities in Rivers.
Jega said later: “I don’t believe that the allegations are substantial enough to require the cancellation or rescheduling of the elections in Rivers state. We will take the results.”
But Buhari — who ruled from December 1983 to August 1985 — encouraged by tallies from two northern states, where he stretched his lead over Jonathan compared to four years ago.
In Kano, Buhari defeated Jonathan by nearly 1.7 million votes after besting the president by roughly one million in 2011.
And in Kaduna, where the two ran neck-and-neck in 2011, Buhari won by 650,000 votes.
International observers gave broadly positive reactions to the conduct of the vote, despite late delivery of election materials and technical glitches with new voter authentication devices.
Nigeria’s Transition Monitoring Group, which had observers across the country, said: “These issues did not systematically disadvantage any candidate or party.”
– US, UK warning –
The PDP and the APC on Sunday traded allegations of vote rigging and other irregularities, raising the possibility of a legal challenge to the results.
Violence has often flared in previous Nigerian elections after the winner is announced and the United States and Britain warned against any “interference” with the count.
“So far, we have seen no evidence of systemic manipulation of the process,” US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a joint statement Monday.
“But there are disturbing indications that the collation process — where the votes are finally counted — may be subject to deliberate political interference.”
Kayode Idowu, spokesman for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), told AFP that there was “no evidence of political interference”.
– Fears, curfew –
Kaduna, one of the areas worst-affected by violence four years ago when some 1,000 people were killed in post-election clashes, was said to be calm.
Awwal Abdullahi Aliyu, president of the Northern People Unity and Reconciliation Union, warned that places such as Kaduna remained a powderkeg and could “catch fire”, particularly if electoral fraud is suspected in any ruling party victory.
Some 2,000 women protesting against the conduct of the elections were teargassed Monday as they tried to converge on the local electoral commission offices in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt.
The protest over alleged vote rigging by the PDP — and a counter-protest demanding the results hold — forced the Rivers state government to impose an overnight curfew.
The winning presidential candidate needs not just the most votes but at least 25 percent support in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory to avoid a run-off.
Voting was pushed into an unscheduled second day Sunday after failures in controversial new technology designed to read biometric identity cards to combat electoral fraud.
Among those affected by the technical hitches was the president himself.