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Nigerian Voters Choose New President - 2003-04-19

Voters in Nigeria have gone to the polls to choose a new president. The landmark poll is the second since the end of military rule four years ago and marks a new phase in Nigeria's democratic evolution.

Voting Saturday appeared to go smoothly and peacefully in Lagos, although there were reports of troubles elsewhere in Nigeria.

A voter in the Surulere neighborhood, Rasheed Giwa, said he went without breakfast in order to get to the polling station early. Mr. Giwa was optimistic the election will succeed. "I think it is going on fine, from the look of things," he said. "There's no crisis like before, not any violence or any kind of thing like that. I think we can get a result."

The biggest problem at many polling stations was the rain - some of the voting centers were outdoors. There were polling stations in bus stops, under bridges and under the awnings of small shops.

Two polling stations in the Yaba neighborhood consisted of nothing more than tables set up in the middle of the street. One had an umbrella fixed over the ballot box, but the other was totally exposed to the elements. Local observers said they had to suspend voting for about 15 minutes during a sudden downpour.

Another rain shower sent voters in Surulere scurrying home for their umbrellas, but most of them returned right away to take their places in line.

The head of a local Community Development Association, Emmanuel Umukoro, was encouraged by what he saw. "What my people want is good governance, that can translate into good social amenities for them," he said. "You can see the numbers of people who are out here to vote, despite the rain. It shows commitment on our parts."

It was clear at many polling stations in the Lagos area that things were going much more smoothly than they did during last week's legislative elections, when logistical problems delayed the opening of many voting centers. A domestic election observer in Yaba said the election officials had learned from their experience last week and made several improvements, some of them improvised.

Last week, one polling station had no voting booth, and voters had to mark their ballots in full view of anyone who was standing nearby. This week, officials borrowed a small booth from a local shopkeeper, so voters could mark their ballots in secret.

In the Surulere neighborhood, Larry Isioye was a polling agent for President Olusegun Obasanjo's party, the People's Democratic Party. "I want to believe that judging by all standards from our previous experiences when it comes to national elections, this is probably the best in terms of organization, in terms of orderliness, in terms of voter turnout," he said.

Mr. Isioye said the turnout in Surulere was much better than it was last week, when only about 30 percent of the polling station's registered voters turned out to cast their ballots. As he spoke, about 60 people waited patiently outside in the rain.

Several other voting centers also had long lines all day, but most voting queues around the city were relatively short, with no more than 10 or 20 people waiting at a time. There was, however, a steady flow of voters to keep the election officials busy.

Mr. Umukoro of the Community Development Association. "I think from what is happening now and by the grace of God, if we continue in this line we will get a democracy that we have been yearning for since our forefathers' time. I believe we will get there. It's just a matter of time. We will get there," he said.

There was heavy security around the city while the polls were open. The only cars allowed out on the streets belonged to observers, election officials and journalists, as well as essential personnel such as doctors.

Last week's legislative elections were marred by violence in the Niger Delta region, which kept the polls from opening in some areas. And reports of serious irregularities in some areas last week sparked anger among opposition parties.

The main opposition presidential candidate, former General Muhammadu Buhari, accused the ruling party of rigging the National Assembly vote and threatened "mass action" if he thinks the presidential poll is fixed.

Incumbent President Obasanjo has warned his rivals against inciting unrest.

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.