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Delays, Accusations Mar Nigeria Vote Before Saturday's Start


Delays and accusations of rigging are marring Nigeria's presidential and legislative elections, even before polls open on Saturday. VOA's Nico Colombant reports from Abuja.

More than 60 million ballots had to be reprinted to include the broom symbol for Vice President Atiku Abubakar's Action Congress party.

Election officials say the new ballots are only starting to arrive after being printed abroad, and that polls will open at 10:00 a.m. Nigeria time on Saturday, two hours later than initially scheduled.

Some observers say the ballots were produced in South Africa, and that by midday Friday they were still not in Nigeria.

The government declared Friday a national holiday, but trucks and military planes were apparently on standby to take ballots to polling stations.

This week, the country's supreme court reinstated the controversial vice president as a candidate. He had been excluded because of accusations of corruption, which he denies.

He says he believes the elections will be marred by fraud and that he is only running so he can contest them later in the courts.

His party said soldiers in the north intercepted a truck full of completed ballots, but election officials have denied the charges. They said the ballots were not yet in Nigeria at the alleged time of the incident.

In a crowded field of more than 20 presidential candidates, the two favorites are the ruling party's Umaru Musa Yar'Adua and the opposition's main candidate, General Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler. Both are Muslim northerners.

To avoid a runoff, a candidate must get the highest number of votes and also a quarter of votes in 24 of 36 states.

Outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, has said he hopes the election will be better organized than last week's state polls, which were marred by delays, underage voting, a chaotic release of results, decisions for revotes in certain areas, and violence, including the theft of ballot boxes while the voting was ongoing.

Human rights campaigner and observer, Festus Okoye, says Nigerians should try to vote and also make sure their vote counts.

"They must remain on course and they must keep faith in the democratic process," he said. "There is some level of political disengagement between the people and the democratic process. Our challenge is to re-engage the people in the democratic process, and tell them that no matter what the problems are, whatever the weaknesses of the system and no matter the challenges they are facing, they are better off in living under a democratic system of government that guarantees our freedom and also gives us a voice to voice what we do not like in this system."

About 60 million people are registered to vote. They will also select 360 house legislators and 109 senators.

The outgoing parliament voted against proposals to amend the constitution and allow President Obasanjo to seek a third term.

If the election comes off, it will mark the first handover of an elected president to another one since independence from Britain in 1960.