, Abuja, Nigeria, Feb 22 – Nigeria makes a second attempt to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this weekend, after a last-gasp postponement that angered voters and stoked the political temperature.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will on Saturday try again to stage Africa’s biggest vote, at which President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking a second, four-year term.
Challenging him in what is expected to be a close race is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president.
INEC chairman Mahmood Yakubu has faced calls to resign since he announced the one-week delay just hours before polling was due to begin last Saturday.
But he has since tried to calm nerves, insisting the body remains “on course” to overcome the logistical problems that hampered delivery of election materials.
“I want to reassure you that elections will hold on Saturday,” he told a news conference in Abuja on Thursday. “There won’t be another postponement.”
– Suspicions –
All eyes will be on the nearly 120,000 polling stations when they open at 0700 GMT to see if the correct ballot boxes, papers and results sheets have been delivered — and on time.
IT specialists have worked round-the-clock to reconfigure some 180,000 machines that are needed to check biometric identity cards, and allow people to vote.
Just over 84 million voters have been registered this year, although INEC said 11.2 million (13.7 percent) had failed to pick up their permanent voters’ cards (PVCs).
There are more people with cards than at the last election. However, the uncollected cards will likely add to fears about a lower turn-out and do little to alleviate persistent fears of fraud.
Many Nigerians travel from commercial centres such as Lagos to their home towns and villages. Fewer people are expected to be able to afford to do so again — or want to.
At the last elections in 2015, there were 67.4 million registered voters. Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), won 15.4 million of the 28.5 million valid votes cast.
Repeated delays in the distribution and collection of identity cards this time have led to suspicions of skullduggery and conspiracy between the parties and INEC.
Both the APC and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) have been accused of trying to buy the cards, with a view to rig the result.
At governorship elections in southwest Nigeria last year, it was claimed the APC and PDP were offering 3,000 to 5,000 naira ($8-13, 7-12 euros) per card.
Thousands of PVCs and card readers have been destroyed in three suspicious fires at separate INEC offices in central and southeast Nigeria.
Yakubu has said there is “no evidence that the commission has been sabotaged”, despite a whirlwind of accusations that INEC has been compromised that could hit the vote’s credibility.
– Security fears –
At 76 and 72, Buhari and Abubakar are the oldest of 73 presidential candidates and are standing in what could be the last elections of their long political careers.
Both have been fixtures on Nigeria’s political landscape for decades, through the turbulent decades of military rule to the return to civilian rule in 1999.
Just over half of all registered voters are aged 18-35, reflecting the country’s increasingly young population. No date has been given for the results, but an announcement is expected from early next week.
Buhari, a former military ruler, has again positioned himself as the candidate to tackle multiple security challenges, including Boko Haram Islamists, and endemic corruption.
He also wants another four years to complete much-needed road and rail infrastructure projects and expand social mobility schemes, including micro-finance for the poorest.
Abubakar, meanwhile, is seen as a pro-business free marketeer, whose main pledges have been to privatise state-run companies and float the embattled naira currency.
The past has come back to haunt both candidates, with Abubakar dogged by his alleged links to corruption cases in the United States and Buhari claims of creeping authoritarianism.
Earlier this month he suspended Nigeria’s chief justice after he was charged with corruption.
But with the Supreme Court he presides over likely to rule on any election petition, many suspected a political motive.
Uppermost in many voters’ minds on Saturday will be on safety, with tensions running high that increases the chance of violence, particularly in swing states.
Buhari this week said he had ordered the police and the military to be “ruthless” with vote-riggers and ballot-snatchers.
The army, which is not responsible for election security, has backed Buhari but Abubakar has said “the era of dictatorship and military rule.”