Nigeria's first transfer of power from one civilian government to another got off to a messy start Saturday, as voters throughout Africa's most populous nation queued up to make their choice for president.
Ballot boxes went missing, ballot papers ran out, and political activists paid citizens for their votes. There were also widespread reports of voter intimidation and rigging in favor of the ruling party of outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The two main opposition parties on Sunday denounced the conduct of the election while the Transition Monitoring Group, a Nigerian observer group, called for the vote to be canceled. The government dismissed the criticism as part of a coup plot.
Despite the disruptions, however, the presidential vote was tame compared with last Saturday's state elections in which more than 21 people were killed.
That's at least one reason to hold out hope that the exercise of democracy may have a chance of taking hold in a nation that has been ruled for most of its history by a cabal of Army generals and their business supporters.
"The presidential election was less violent compared with the governors' race last week, because Nigerians are more concerned over state issues, the things that affect their lives more directly," says Charles Dokubo, a senior researcher for the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs. "When it comes to the central government, most Nigerians believe the battle was already lost before it began. Their vote does not change anything. It has either been rigged."
Cynicism and hope
Cynicism and hope make odd bedfellows, but they are the key to understanding this nation's political psyche. Talk to voters at most polling stations, and you'll get a bittersweet mixture of hope for improvement in their lives – toward more jobs, better roads, better schools, and a more reliable supply of electricity – but also a recognition that true democracy will require a more fundamental change in the nation's corrupted political culture.
"Things have not gotten better," says Chuks Igwe, a businessman waiting for his polling station to open in the Bar Beach area of Lagos. "A poor man wants food to chop," he says, using the local Nigerian slang word for "eat." "We need jobs," he says. "If you keep these young people busy, there will be less crime, there will be less corruption. Then, if you try to pay them and tell them to go vote for somebody they'll say, 'Go away!'
That time surely has not come to Nigeria. Just 50 feet away, a car pulls up to a curb alongside some loitering young men. A whoop goes up as a man gets out of the car with a bag and starts distributing money, telling the huddled men to vote for a certain candidate. Obediently, they join the queue of voters.
International election observers pointed to numerous flaws in the presidential elections, such as the late opening and early closing of polling booths; the lack of ballot papers in some polling stations; and even the lack of serial numbers on ballots, which could allow ballots to be mass-produced and premarked by party activists or corrupt election officials.
The chief European Union election observer, Max van den Berg, told Reuters he was unsure whether there had been any improvement over regional polls last week, which was marred by widespread fraud and the killing of more than 21 people.
"For the moment I am worried," he told Reuters.
But while some voters appeared resigned that their vote meant little for this presidential election, about two dozen voters at Polling Unit 17, nestled in the tin-roofed car park of the Ministry of Agriculture's campus, were growing increasingly agitated when ballot papers ran out at 3:00 p.m. Saturday. They still hadn't cast their votes.
"We are registered at this polling station, so we can't go vote someplace else," says Oromidayo Arikawe. "We requested that they go to another polling booth to get ballot papers, but they say it is finished, and there's nothing we can do about it."
By 4:00 p.m., local officials for the Independent National Election Commission had still not sent out for more ballot papers, and the crowd of agitated voters was growing larger.
One voter, a middle-aged woman named Lilly, said she had been paid 200 naira (less than $2) to vote for the PDP candidate last week in the governor's race, and she was promised another 200 naira to vote in the presidential race. "They promised me 200 naira, but there aren't ballot papers for me to vote, and the people who promised me the money aren't here," she says. "I should have come earlier."
Many in the teeming commercial capital of Lagos, an opposition stronghold, are tense in anticipation of clashes following the announcement of results Monday evening. Lagos police officers expressed concern to the Monitor about about what might happen when results are announced.
"Obasanjo ... wants a one-party state," says Osita Okechukwu, spokesman for presidential candidate Mohammadu Buhari. "We have already had violence last week, and that will not abate with this election. We in Nigeria are in a state of siege."
Now all eyes are on the government as it decides how to respond to allegations of widespread fraud.
"Indications are the ruling power will remain in power, given the way the election was conducted," says Mr. Dokubo. "Now we have to wait to see how the results are accepted."