Nigeria counts votes from delayed poll

ABUJA Sat Apr 9, 2011 11:45pm IST

Women queue to cast their ballots in Nigeria's parliamentary elections in the northern city of Kano, April 9, 2011.    REUTERS/Joseph Penney

Women queue to cast their ballots in Nigeria's parliamentary elections in the northern city of Kano, April 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Joseph Penney

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ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerians counted the votes on Saturday from delayed parliamentary elections, held with fewer hitches than past ballots despite a chaotic and violent run-up.

Voters were determined to show Africa's most populous nation could hold a credible poll after more than a decade of elections discredited by ballot stuffing and thuggery.

"It was free and fair here and we've become much more optimistic about elections," said technician Umar Mohammed Jari in the upmarket Maitama district of the capital, Abuja, as votes were tallied at a polling station for all to see.

"It has been 100 percent better than the last times."

Killings in the final hours before the vote still cast a shadow over the elections. Nearly 20 people died in bombings and shootings, taking the toll from the poll run-up to around 100. At least two people were killed on voting day itself.

The bloodshed and logistical chaos, which forced the postponement of the parliamentary vote a week ago, have renewed doubts over whether democracy can work in Nigeria a dozen years after the end of army rule.

Some voters saw this election as a chance for a new start.

"It's no longer business as usual," said Isa Jalo, an estate manager in Lagos, Nigeria's biggest city. "Politicians across the country are jittery at the way the elections have been conducted so far. They are not used to this at all.

Saturday's parliamentary vote will be followed by the more important presidential election on April 16, which President Goodluck Jonathan is tipped to win. Governorship polls in 36 states will be held on April 26.

Preparations for the vote were much better than a week earlier, when papers failed to reach most of Nigeria.

"There was almost no disorder and no intimidation," the head of a European Union observer mission, Alojz Peterle, told Reuters. EU observers said the last nationwide elections, held in 2007, were not credible.

OPTIMISM

The head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), humiliated by the election postponement, was pleased.

"There were some pockets (of violence) but if you look at things nationwide we can count where these things happened on our finger tips," he told a news conference.

"It is unfortunate they happened, but at least they are isolated cases," Jega said.

His estimate of turnout at 75 percent looked high compared to accounts from much of the country of 150 million.

Counting began straight after voting -- officials shouting out the result on each ballot paper to ensure transparency.

Dozens of eager voters, mostly young men chanting the name of their respective parties, perched on benches and chairs to try to see votes counted at one polling station in the Obalende neighbourhood of Lagos.

"We will wait as long as it takes. We want to prove what happened. We don't trust them, we want to make sure there is no rigging," said Jon Sunday, 26, an unemployed graduate, shouting to be heard above the crowd.

Not all went smoothly.

An opposition politician was shot dead in the far northeastern Borno State. A bomb exploded at a voting booth in the state's main city, Maiduguri, taking off a policewoman's hands and wounding four other people.

In the ever volatile Niger Delta, where Nigeria pumps most of its oil, voter materials were hijacked in the village of Ekeremor. In the town of Brass, one person was killed in clashes between supporters of rival politicians.

Security was tightened nationwide after a bombing killed at least 10 people on Friday at an election office in Suleja, on the edge of the capital Abuja. Overnight, another five people were killed in western Nigeria.

"There are some anti-social elements that want to derail the process of the voting, but they will not succeed," said President Jonathan, voting at his village in the Niger Delta.

Seats in the national assembly are fiercely contested by candidates who stand to win a package whose benefits alone amount to more than $1 million a year.

The ruling People's Democratic Party may remain the biggest party, but with a smaller parliamentary majority. The PDP holds more than three-quarters of the 360 seats in the House of Representatives and of the 109 in the Senate.

(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ )

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall, Chijioke Ohuocha, Shyamantha Asokan in Lagos, Joseph Penny in Kano, Camillus Eboh in Abuja, Samuel Tife in Yenagoa, Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt, Ibrahim Mshelizza in Hawul; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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