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Nigeria Readies for Presidential Election - 2003-04-18

Nigerians go to the polls Saturday to elect a president. If all goes well, it will be the first successful civilian organized election in 20 years. There are fears voting irregularities or political violence could derail Nigeria's effort to firmly establish democracy.

The Nigerian election poses tremendous logistical challenges for the organizers. There are nearly 61 million registered voters, 30 political parties and 20 candidates for the presidency. The country's technical infrastructure is shaky and Nigeria elections have usually been accompanied by violence.

One day before the election, at the busy market on Lagos Island many people said they are determined to go to the polls and exercise their democratic rights.

Never before in Nigeria's history has a democratically elected civilian government organized successful elections. Every civilian-run election in the last 43 years has resulted in a military takeover.

Residents of Lagos are hoping, and praying, this election will not degenerate into violence.

Voters already cast their ballots last Saturday to choose members of parliament. The legislative poll was widely seen as a trial run for this week's election, when voters are choosing a president, as well as governors for Nigeria's 36 states.

If presidential votes follow the same pattern as the legislative election, current president Olusegun Obasanjo will win re-election.

But that is not certain. The main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, has accused the ruling party of massive rigging in the legislative election. Mr. Buhari has threatened unspecified mass action if he thinks the presidential poll is rigged.

International election observers say they are keeping their expectations reasonably low. And they say last Saturday's legislative vote exceeded those expectations. There were reports of violence and voting irregularities in some places. Polls opened several hours late in some districts, and not at all in others. There were also problems with voter registration.

But overall, observers from the Commonwealth group of nations said last week's voting was fairly peaceful nationwide. Both the government and the Independent National Electoral Commission have vowed to make the presidential poll run more smoothly.

For many voters in Lagos, the presidential results are not actually the most important. In the Lagos Island marketplace, most people first mentioned their chosen candidate for governor. Their presidential choices were often just an afterthought.

Inside a narrow market stall, Saheed Olajide-Oyewole explains why. "To me? Governorship election is more important to me," he said. "It's my state. I know my governor will take care of me before the president. So governor election is more important to me than the presidential election. But both are important. But governor is closer to me than the president."

Most people who spoke to VOA said the key issues for them are economic ones. They want more jobs, lower food prices, and a tangible improvement in their quality of life. They also mentioned the need to fight crime and corruption as key issues determining how they will vote.