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Nigerian elections: Boko Haram is one of many disruptions, but voters persist (+video)

Attacks by Boko Haram and violence between the two main opposing parties, compounded technical problems with Nigeria’s new polling machines. But millions of Nigerian citizens voted in a presidential election Saturday.

In the weeks and months leading up to Nigeria’s presidential elections, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram had vowed to disrupt the democratic process.

And indeed, Saturday’s elections in the West African nation have been extended to Sunday as the militants waved guns at voters and attacked several villages, forcing residents to abandon polls, the BBC reported. Technical problems with the country’s new polling machines, as well as violence between supporters of incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan and those of main opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari, have also proven almost as disruptive as the insurgents.

Still, voters across the country have turned out by the millions to cast their ballots in a critical and divisive election.

“For Nigeria, this is a watershed moment – for national security, for the economy and for democratic governance,” Charlotte Florance, a research associate at The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, wrote in an op-ed for Fox News. “The West African country is an anchor in the region. … Yet Nigeria is plagued with severe corruption, violent Islamist terrorists and severe economic disparity.”

The country is Africa's top oil producer and largest democracy. This year’s elections are described as the tightest and most polarizing since Nigerian independence in 1999, according to Reuters.

On Monday, a peaceful rally devolved into violence as dozens of Mr. Buhari’s supporters attacked Mr. Jonathan’s campaign office in Kaduna. Young people, armed with machetes, slashed posters of Jonathan and threw rocks at the office. Jonathan’s supporters retaliated, forcing soldiers and police to intervene.

“What happened must be condemned,” Danjuma Bello Sarki, a youth leader of Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, told Reuters. “It was uncalled for.”

Contributing to the disturbances is Boko Haram, which has continued its attacks on citizens in the weeks leading up to the elections and on election day itself. 

Up to 13 people have been reported killed Saturday afternoon as militants opened fire at polling stations in Yobe and Borno in northeastern Nigeria, according to local news site Pulse. Earlier, the group attacked polls in Gombe, also in the northeast, with the number of reported dead ranging from two to nine.

Boko Haram has led a five-year insurgency out of Nigeria’s northeast region with the goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate. The group has called democracy a corrupt concept out of the West, and succeeded in having the elections postponed by six weeks: In February, the Nigerian government delayed the elections in an effort to give a coalition of countries, including neighboring Chad and Cameroon, time to end the insurgency.

The Nigerian government has since claimed to have retaken about 30 towns villages and freed three states, but that progress has changed the nature - not the quantity - of violence wrought by the militants, NBC News reported.

“If we compare the six weeks before the crackdown to the six weeks following it, the number of Boko Haram attacks increased,” Matthew Henman, head of the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, an international research organization, said in a statement. “We also saw a 20 percent increase in the number of suicide attacks in this period.”

Nigeria’s new voter ID card system has brought its own set of complications to the voting process. Touted as a method to ensure transparency, the hand-held card readers issued to various polling stations have in many cases struggled to verify fingerprints and register new cards, Voice of America reported.

Even Jonathan took “some 50 minutes to register in his home village of Otuoke,” and eventually had to be accredited manually, according to the BBC.

Despite all this, millions of Nigerians persisted in exercising their right to vote.

“We have suffered enough, fled our homes after many attacks," Roda Umar, a housewife from the former militant headquarters of Gwoza, told the BBC. "I'm ready to endure the pain to vote."

That courage, The Heritage Foundation’s Ms. Florance wrote, is “an essential step” towards true democracy for Nigeria. She continued:

Boko Haram will be fully defeated only when all Nigerians can peacefully voice their opinions and economic advantage is not only limited to those with political advantages. ...No matter which candidate prevails at the polls, the Nigerian people and the country’s political elites must remain committed to respecting the democratic process. Otherwise, the country cannot move forward.

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