Nigerians brace for more violence as voters choose state governors

Stakes in Tuesday's state governors races are high, both for incumbents who want to hold onto their lucrative seats and for opposition challengers.

Joseph Penney/Reuters
People register to vote in Lagos, Nigeria, April 26. Nigerians headed to the polls on Tuesday to choose powerful state governors amid fears of a resurgence of the violence that left hundreds dead after a presidential election earlier this month.

With Africa's most populous nation still reeling from a wave of election violence that killed hundreds and shook the northern region of Nigeria after the April 16 presidential polls, many citizens are fearing more deadly reprisals in today's hotly contested state governor races.

State governors here wield enormous power and influence, mainly through their unlimited access to public funds and state budgets, which in some states in the oil-rich Niger Delta region top those of some neighboring countries in West Africa. So stakes in these local elections are high, both for incumbents who want to hold onto their lucrative seats and for opposition challengers who represent the hopes of disgruntled constituents.

Indeed, this final round of Nigeria's critical three-stage vote could well be the most volatile, according to Nigerian analysts and local press coverage.

Postelection violence

Wounds are still open from the election unrest. On Easter Sunday, villages held mass burials to mourn the dead from several massacres in rural Kaduna State, where violence spread early last week after youths armed with clubs and knives took to the streets of the northern cities of Kaduna and Kano. The youths, many of them unemployed, began rioting April 18 over the anticipated victory of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan over their hero, popular opposition candidate and ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.

Mr. Buhari's Congress for Progressive Change party has lodged an official complaint with the electoral commission, saying that his party will prove that rigging occured in the presidential election. While international and domestic observers initially praised the April 16 polls, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement April 19 urging the Independent Electoral Commission to investigate allegations of fraud, citing reports of "under age" voting in some rural areas and of extremely high turnout in some states, including President Jonathan's home state of Bayelsa in the oil-rich Delta region.

The Independent Electoral Commission postponed the final round voting until Thursday for Bauchi and Kaduna states, the two areas that saw the most severe postelection violence last week. It is unclear whether the brief delay will quell tensions in these states where angry mobs torched churches and mosques and also attacked and killed members of the National Youth Service Corps, many who were recent college graduates assisting at polling stations.

Meanwhile, Nigerian authorities have not released official death tolls from the postelection violence, probably out of fear of stoking already high tensions and sparking further violence.

However, a Kaduna-based civil society group, the Civil Rights Congress, told reporters Sunday that there have been more than 500 burials already from the violence. The Associated Press reported last week from two villages in southern Kaduna State where "charred corpses" were seen being loaded into trucks. From the village of Zonkwa, witnesses said "hundreds" of people had been killed.

North-South split

Jonathan, a southern Christian who assumed office last year after the death of President Umaru Yar Ardua, a northern Muslim, is sure to face an uphill battle in convincing the northern electorate, many of whom voted for opposition challenger Buhari, that he is truly a leader for all Nigerians.

The results of the presidential poll revealed "sharp divisions along regional and religous lines," says Adam Higazi, a research fellow at Cambridge University who studies religious conflict in Nigeria. "The elections show that the country is very divided, so Jonathan has to find a way to unify north and south."

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