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Nigerians Vote in Tense Election

Cameroon-Nigeria Boundary

Security forces are on high alert in Nigeria's southeastern state, Anambra, before Saturday's governorship election. Previous elections in Nigeria have been marred by violence and fraud.

The statewide election has taken on national importance, as the weekend vote is widely seen as a democracy test for Africa's most-populous nation, ahead of general elections next year.

Elections in Nigeria since independence have always been disputed, prompting the Christian community in Anambra to pray for divine intervention. Oje Oze is the Methodist bishop of Onitsa in Anambra state.

"As Anambra state is preparing for a governorship election on the sixth of February, it is the mind of Christians that we come and pray together that this election will be free and fair and that we need God's intervention to select a candidate that is the man of the people," said Oje Oze.

Nigeria's last elections, in 2007, were generally flawed and condemned by local and foreign observers as falling short of international standards. Oze says Nigeria has another opportunity to show the world it is capable of organizing credible elections.

"Anambra state election is a test case for INEC [Independent National Electoral Commission] in Nigeria. If they get it right it will prove they will be able to do something better next year," he added.

In a country where state governors control a part of the huge riches from oil, the political stakes are high. The air is already thick with claims of favoritism, corruption and electoral fraud as the state Electoral Commissioner Josiah Uwazuruonye tells VOA.

"Let them stop these inflammatory statements they are making," said Uwazuruonye. "Let them stop falsehoods, accusing people who are innocent of one thing or another. Most of them [candidates] are making allegations that the chairman is my cousin, which is not true. Some of them are saying also that one of the gubernatorial candidates is my in-law. These are the things, they do to heat up the system."

The threat of violence posed by thugs sponsored by politicians desperate to get hold of power looms large. Concerns have also been raised about possible poll fraud that could trigger violent protests. A leading member of the Christian community in the state, Joseph Ajujugwa, admits poll irregularities and the tensions they create are a major concern.

"The church has prayed that God should arise and smite anybody and he is going to do it," said Ajujugwa. "People should stay away from the people's vote, from stealing the people's mandate and we believe that it is going to be so. And, we have warned them. God will not spare anyone that engages in such."

The election comes at a time of political uncertainty in Nigeria. Violent crime has surged in Anambra, in the past few years. Criminal gangs have carried out kidnappings ransom, armed robberies and vehicle hijackings, which have left residents living in a state of insecurity.

The police have vowed to ensure the poll goes off in peace. Some 27,000 officers have been deployed. The police spokesman in the state, Chukwuemeka Ebuka, tells VOA security measures have been put in place to prevent election fraud and violence.

"Any identified politician or, indeed, his crony or agent who is found to be bringing illegal arms into the state will face the full wrath of the law," he said. "We know that this is a litmus test to the 2011 general elections and we are committed to getting it right this time around."

The ruling People's Democratic Party has dominated Nigeria's political scene, but faces stiff competition on Saturday from at least three opposition candidates, including the incumbent state Governor Peter Obi, who is contesting on the platform of the All Progressive Grand Alliance.

Nigeria, scarred by decades of corrupt dictatorship and military rule, returned to civilian government in 1999.