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Violence Mars Nigerian Elections


Vote counting is under way in Nigeria, where voters went to the polls Saturday in a landmark presidential election. It is the first time in 20 years that a civilian government has been able to hold an election.

The country's election commission appealed to voters to accept the results of the ballot for 36 governorships and the presidency "in the name of democracy and peace."

Inside a Lagos schoolroom, election officials tally stacks of long paper ballots. Many polling stations are outdoors, but a torrential rainstorm drove everyone indoors as the voting ended and the vote counting began. Some ballots came out of the box soaking wet, but still legible.

Voters went to the polls to choose a new president and governors for Nigeria's 36 states. Thirty political parties are contesting the election, and there are 20 candidates for president, including the incumbent, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Political pundits say the presidential race really comes down to two men - Mr. Obasanjo and another ex-general, Muhammadu Buhari.

Early vote counting in Lagos seemed to indicate the pundits are right. Most of the ballots were marked either for Mr. Obasanjo's party, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), or for Mr. Buhari's, the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP).

At another polling station, standing under an awning to stay out of the driving rain, presiding officer Tunde Pedro separates ballots by party, as a crowd of election officials, party agents and police officers look on.

Voting in Lagos was largely peaceful, and most polling stations opened and closed on time. But there were problems in other parts of the country.

In the southeastern oil city of Warri, violence and general chaos kept almost all the polls closed despite a massive security presence on the streets. Reports indicate very few people managed to vote in that region. Where polling stations did open, turnout was low and many voters appeared to have heeded opposition calls to boycott.

That was also the case last week during legislative elections, when few voters were reported at the polls in the Niger Delta region. But the government reported 98 percent turnout for the National Assembly vote there, angering opposition supporters who accuse the ruling party of rigging.

Mr. Buhari has said he will call for unspecified "mass action" if he thinks the presidential election is fixed. Mr. Obasanjo has warned his rivals against inciting unrest.

Voters in the Lagos area said they were aware of the electoral problems in other parts of the country, but most of them were very pleased with the relative peace of the voting process in their neighborhoods.

Rasheed Giwa said members of his community would not tolerate any disruption or violence. "So there is changes now, there is changes now," he stressed. "There is no room for nonsense. We are even standing here to prevent any kind of nonsense thing that would disturb this election. That is why we are standing by."

This is Nigeria's second democratic election since emerging from 15 years of military rule in 1999. The country has never before had two successful elections in a row without the results being overturned by a military coup.

The final results of this presidential poll are not expected for a day or two, perhaps longer. Nigeria has nearly 61 million registered voters. If even a fraction of them actually went to the polls, it still means a lot of ballots to count.

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