|Torn posters of Nigerian Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari are seen in Abuja Sunday Feb. 24, 2019. Buhari faced opposition presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar in the presidential election. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)|
KANO, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria faced a second day of voting in scattered areas on Sunday in a presidential election seen as too close to call, while the death toll from vote-related violence mounted in Africa’s largest democracy.
The electoral commission said it was happy that voting was generally peaceful, but it mourned the killing of one of its workers by a stray bullet. At least 39 people have died in extremist and other attacks, said analysis unit SBM Intelligence, citing informants and media reports.
The election worker was killed after completing work in Rivers state in the restive south, with electoral chairman Mahmood Yakubu telling reporters: “May her soul rest in peace.”
He didn’t give an overall death toll, saying he was focused on election workers, who faced “intimidation, abduction, hostage-taking and violence.”
In one case, he made an urgent phone call to secure the release of workers and even police taken hostage in Rivers state, he said. All were unharmed.
Voting continued in parts of Abia, Bayelsa, Benue, Plateau, Zamfara and Sokoto states after the process was extended because of various issues.
“Nigerians have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and abiding faith in the electoral process,” Yakubu said.
The national vote compilation center opened in the capital, Abuja, on Sunday evening, with at least one state among Nigeria’s 36 already on the way after completing its vote count.
A formal declaration of the presidential winner would come “in the not-too-distant future,” the chairman said. Meanwhile, observers warned of potential thuggery as local officials raced to compile votes across the country.
More than 72 million people had been eligible to vote in Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. The election was held a week late after the electoral commission cited several logistical challenges, including bad weather.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who unseated the incumbent in the 2015 election, seeks a second term against more than 70 candidates. His main rival is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and billionaire businessman who has made sweeping claims of reviving an economy still limping back from a rare, months-long recession.
Many Nigerians, appalled that their country recently became the world leader in the number of people living in extreme poverty, said the election will be decided by economic issues. Nigeria slipped into recession under Buhari when global oil prices crashed, with unemployment growing significantly to 23 percent and inflation now above 11 percent.
One of the largest domestic observer groups, Watching the Vote, told reporters that Nigeria had missed its chance to improve on the 2015 election, seen as one of the most transparent in the country’s history.
Logistical problems caused 59 percent of the polling stations monitored to open late, and misconduct at some stations affected people’s ability to vote. Those issues, however, didn’t necessarily undermine the election’s credibility, spokesman Hussaini Abdu said.
In the northern city of Kano, tempers flared at one vote compilation center where Abubakar supporters alleged that ballots from a couple of polling units hadn’t been counted. Amid shouting, security personnel pushed them out of the courtyard’s metal door.
A ruling party supervisor, Joy Bako, watched in exasperation after she spent a sleepless night standing guard over results, like many party agents across the country.
“It was free and fair,” she said. “Nobody was arguing. I’m surprised at all this noise.”
Observers and others who visited multiple compilation centers reported a peaceful process in a region where voters were expected to largely support Buhari.
Even one Abubakar supporter, Abubakar Ali, paused from the ruckus to acknowledge that “everything was going clear.” But many people didn’t come out to vote as compared to 2015, he said.
Godwin Ugbala, who spent the election as an agent for one of Nigeria’s dozens of small political parties, also reported a smooth voting day. He added his voice to many Nigerians’ frustration with Buhari, though some voters said they had no other option but him.
“This one failed us in so many ways,” Ugbala said. “No business. Everything is tired.” He voted for Buhari in 2015 but said the president had “betrayed” the people by not following up on his promises to tackle insecurity and corruption.
In Nigeria vote, armed vigilantes work to keep the peace
Then, after midnight, their commander issued orders and the 30 men dispersed on foot to set up roadblocks and flag down vehicles. They shone flashlights at frightened drivers who squirmed to show identification papers. When the operation was over, two hours later, at least five suspicious men were detained and later turned over to the police.
These civilian volunteers — a motley crew that includes carpenters, metal workers, teachers and even some students — call themselves the Vigilante Group of Nigeria, hunters of Islamic extremists and other bandits who have turned parts of Nigeria’s north into a war zone. The group, which works closely with local authorities, is believed to have made cities like Yola, capital of the northeastern state of Adamawa, more secure in the months leading up to the presidential election, including the counting taking place Sunday.
“Forget about the police,” said Mustapha Bashar, top commander of the Adamawa branch of the group, beaming from the back of a car. “Right now, we are doing their work. We are the only security personnel who are carrying out these patrols at night.”
Bashar has a network of 10,000 vigilantes across Adamawa, even including spies working undercover in markets, he said, describing a formal organization with a hierarchy of leadership. Fighters stood erect before Bashar and saluted him.
Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in a deadly campaign that has killed over 27,000 people and displaced over 1.7 million in the predominantly Muslim north. This was a major campaign issue in the election, as voters in the north demand an end to a security crisis that has traumatized millions of Nigerians.
President Muhammadu Buhari was voted into office in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram, but the extremists have continued to inflict violence and a second group has formed, calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province. That group claimed an attack in Maiduguri shortly before voting started Saturday.
The insurgency also has inspired the work of vigilantes armed with machetes, knives, sticks, and homemade guns that resemble assault rifles. In their coffee brown uniforms, complete with shoulder epaulets, these Boko Haram hunters also have “fortified themselves” with traditional charms they believe offer protection against an ambush, said Mohammed Kabir, a statistics lecturer at a federal polytechnic who commands one of several units of the group in Yola.
“Most of our people are hardened,” he said, feeling the tip of an arrow that he said had been smeared with poison that could kill a man instantly. “We carry out arrests the police cannot make. There are places the police are afraid to go.”
Patrolling the town later, Kabir and his men didn’t encounter any police, and they arrested three young men believed to be under the influence of narcotics. Two others taken into custody couldn’t explain why they were out so late. Another man said he was returning from treatment at a local hospital, produced documents to prove it and was escorted home.
Although Boko Haram attacks are rare in Yola, hometown of the opposition candidate Abubakar, many remain wary of the danger posed by the extremist group whose guerrilla tactics have strained the armed forces. Nigeria’s army has faced pointed questions over the years over its failure to end the Boko Haram scourge despite heaving defense spending.
Transparency International charged in 2017 that military corruption worsened the Boko Haram conflict as defense officials sought to profit from fraudulent arms contracts. Nigeria’s current vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, alleged last year that the country lost $15 billion in corrupt arms procurement deals during previous administrations.
Buhari’s government is not immune to similar charges.
Members of the Yola vigilante group noted that although huge sums of money had been spent — the National Assembly approved a record $147 million for election security — not a single coin had entered the group’s coffers. The voluntary group, which operates on donations and owns no patrol vehicles, has written many times to the Adamawa governor requesting four cars, according to commanders Bashar and Kabir.
“It’s like we don’t exist,” said Kabir, who joined the group in 2014 following a Boko Haram attack in the town of Mubi that forced his family to flee into Cameroon before relocating to Yola. “There is zero assistance from the government.”
Adamawa Governor Jibrilla Bindow didn’t respond to questions about the vigilantes’ concerns.
Abubakar Aliyu, a senior officer with the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps in Yola, said the self-defense group had become an important component of the security apparatus keeping Adamawa state safe for all residents.
“The police can’t do this work alone,” he said, his colleagues nodding in agreement. “The vigilantes know the terrain well. They work hand in hand with the police.”
The civilian patrols have gained the trust of some in Yola, a hardscrabble city of some 400,000 whose streets are dominated by the yellow tricycles offering public transport.
“We trust them because we know all of them,” said student Zakiyu Abdullahi. “I feel better and I feel safe when I meet them at night. They are, one way or the other, trying to ensure that society is safe.”
The group has intercepted many people believed to be dangerous over the years, including a man caught outside the palace of the local emir in 2016, said Ammar Khalil, who has served in patrols since 2013. Khalil said he was proud “to suffer for (his) country,” recalling that the Boko Haram suspect he helped to apprehend was handed over to the police.
“We don’t judge any cases in our office,” he said. “We take these people to the police and it is for them to act.”