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A Week Late, Nigeria's Election Unfolds

Feb 23, 2019
Originally published on February 24, 2019 12:15 pm

Vote-counting has started in Nigeria's much-anticipated election, a week after it was postponed by election officials who blamed logistical challenges.

The country's 73 million voters will choose between dozens of presidential candidates, including incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term to take the country to the "next level."

The other front-runner is Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and businessman who has promised to jump start Nigeria's economy. The Associated Press reported both lead candidates cast their votes on Saturday, Buhari jokingly checking his wife's ballot to see how she had voted.

Analysts say the race is too close to call, AP reported. But both candidates have said they're confident they will win.

On Saturday, Buhari responded to journalists asking if he would accept defeat and congratulate the winner if he loses: "I will congratulate myself," he said laughingly. "I'm going to be the winner. Thank you very much."

Buhari's main challenger, Abubakar, also answered confidently when asked about the outcome of the presidential vote. "I look forward to a successful transition," Abubakar said. Asked what he would do if he loses, he replied, "I am a democrat."

Observers say preliminary results are expected in two to four days, according to The Washington Post.

Voters cast their ballots at a primary school-turned-polling station on Lake Chad Crescent.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton / NPR

The presidential candidates renewed a pact last week aimed at keeping the election peaceful. Four years ago, Buhari was the first-ever opposition candidate to defeat an incumbent president. That election was mainly peaceful, but past elections haven't been.

"This government will do its very best to ensure that the 2019 elections take place in a secure and peaceful atmosphere," Buhari has vowed, as NPR reported.

But gunfire and blasts were heard in several cities before the polls opened.

According to Reuters, suspected Islamist militants attacked a town in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday morning. The Islamic State West Africa claimed credit, but, at first, the army denied there was an attack, Reuters reported. According to AP, Nigerian security authorities have since acknowledged the attack.

Residents told Reuters they fled in response to the attacks: "We are right now running and hiding in the bushes," Yobe state resident Ibrahim Gobi said.

According to AP, some Nigerians said the extremist attack in the country's northeast kept them away from the polls.

Other factors might impact voter turnout, too. After last week's delay, many Nigerians were angered by the last-minute change and said they wouldn't vote.

But on Saturday, there were long lines outside a primary school in the capital Abuja, where men and women, some with babies strapped to their backs, stood under the scorching sun, waiting to vote.

The main issues on voters' minds are the economy, security and jobs.

"I'm voting for continuity," Ruka Ajana, a voter, told NPR. "I'm voting for the building of a foundation on which future governments could build on ... [so] a dog can be a president in Nigeria in the future and everything will still work."

Ruka Ajana casts her ballot at a polling station in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for NPR / NPR

Gbenga Komolafe told NPR he voted with the country's economy in mind.

"The priorities are to strengthen our democracy, to get the economy right," said Komolafe. To him, that means reducing unemployment and making sure the country is secure.

Komolafe is in his late 50s, but many voters skew younger.

"Half the population here is a very youthful population," NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton said Sunday in an interview on Weekend Edition. "They want whoever their new leaders are to really make sure that the potential wealth of Nigeria is shared."

Security is also a major concern; in the northeast, the Boko Haram insurgency continues, and in central Nigeria, herder-farmer conflicts over land and grazing rights have cost hundreds of lives. "These are the issues," reported Quist-Arcton. "They want to see stability, they want to see prosperity."

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And now we turn to Nigeria, where millions voted today in an election marked by dramatic twists. At the last minute, the vote was delayed a week because of logistical challenges, infuriating many people. But across the country, voters formed long lines outside polling stations under the scorching sun for a generally peaceful election. However, violent incidents were reported in several cities with explosions in the northeastern part of the country where an insurgency continues. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in the capital Abuja, and she's with us now.

Ofeibea, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So at last, Nigerians have voted, albeit a week late. You watched the vote unfold. Tell us what the voters have been telling you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Voters were saying, oh, at last we're here. Listen, for example, to Ruka Ajana. She said that she was ready to vote a week ago, but she was determined to vote today because voting is so important. Listen to what she says are the priorities.


RUKA AJANA: This is a rich, beautiful country. And anybody from any part of Nigeria can rule us, but I need that person that will put sanity, that will clean up the mess we're in today because we deserve to be better than this. We're not where we're supposed to be.

MARTIN: Ofeibea, what about the presidential candidates? What did the frontrunners have to say after they voted?

QUIST-ARCTON: President Buhari was in a joking mood this morning. He was asked by journalists, what if you lose? Will you concede? He said, oh, no. I'm going to be congratulating myself because I'll win. Now, the main opposition challenger, Atiku Abubakar, former vice president and a businessman - he was asked the same question. And he said, oh, I'm waiting for a very peaceful and orderly transition. And when he was asked, well, if you lose, what will happen, he said, I'm a democrat.

So they are both being presidential about the way they're behaving. But we're told that in his own polling unit that Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition hopeful, lost the vote to the president. So I guess that is democracy.

MARTIN: You know, the hashtag #NigeriaDecides2019 was trending worldwide on Twitter. What do you think that says?

QUIST-ARCTON: They use this time, and they make up half the electorate. Eighty three million people were registered to vote, 73 million picked up their voting cards and the young people are determined. There is the Not Too Young To Run campaign, for example, trying to get more of Nigeria's youth into leadership positions - maybe not president this time but certainly into the National Assembly and state assemblies as well.

They're saying, this is our time. President Muhammadu Buhari is in his 70s, so is Atiku Abubakar. The youth say no, this has got to change. We are Nigeria's future and present, and we need to be represented. So it's really important to see what the youth vote and the youth turnout is going to be at this election.

MARTIN: And finally, Ofeibea, you know, voting is the first step, but then the results have to be announced. What do you anticipate? I recall that that's often the trickiest part of elections in Nigeria.

QUIST-ARCTON: Because there is always that specter of violence if people are not happy with the outcome. So there have been appeals for peaceful elections and especially a peaceful and calm post-election period. We'll have to see. But let me just tell you that the economy is the big thing that people are talking about - also, jobs for the unemployed youth and, of course, peace and security. So all Nigerians are aware of this despite the violent incidents today.

MARTIN: That is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.

Ofeibea, thank you so much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.