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UYO, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerians voted in state governorship elections on Tuesday that were plagued by irregularities but largely free from the violence that left hundreds dead after a presidential poll earlier this month.
Tuesday's vote is the last stage of an election process that while considered to have been the fairest in decades has not escaped the violence long associated with Nigerian politics.
There were reports of unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta where people stealing ballot boxes were arrested and opposition party members complained of political thuggery in areas of President Goodluck Jonathan's home state of Bayelsa.
Some polling units in the southeast state of Akwa Ibom were understaffed allowing intimidation of voters, while the number of international observers is down dramatically on the presidential vote because of a delay in the election cycle.
"There have been some disturbances and abuses across the country which are a concern ... voter turnout has been quite low in a lot of areas," said Clement Nwankwo, head of Nigeria's Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.
Voter numbers were down particularly in some northern areas hard hit by last week's riots, while accreditation started late in many parts of the country after many youth corp members, graduates on national service helping run polling units, stayed indoors fearing they may be targeted by violence.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which delayed the polls by two days in the northern states of Kaduna and Bauchi, where last week's post-election violence was at its worst, said the latest poll was proceeding smoothly.
"Voting has gone on at all polling units so it (security) has not been an issue and where it has been needed there have been replacements," said Kayode Idowu, INEC spokesman.
"The incidents (of violence) are isolated, fewer than at previous elections and security has been better," he added.
The 36 state governors are some of Nigeria's most powerful politicians, wielding influence at the national level and controlling budgets in some cases larger than those of small African nations.
In the federal parliament polls earlier this month, few voters could name their candidates and turnout was low. There was more enthusiasm at the presidential election a week later, but the debate on the street was around personalities rather than policies. For many the governorship race is more important.
"It determines who governs the soul of your state," said Tony Effiong, 28, a student voting in Uyo. "Everybody wants their voice to be heard and they believe that their governor is closer to them than the president."
Supporters in the commercial hub Lagos tried to boost voter turnout with chain text messages urging the recipients not to "sit in your house" and to remember "every vote is important."
This month's elections have already been an emotional rollercoaster for the 73 million registered voters in Nigeria, which -- until 10 days ago -- had failed to hold a single credible election since the end of military rule in 1999.
Hundreds were feared dead in violence in the mostly Muslim north last week after Jonathan, a southern Christian, was declared winner by of an April 16 presidential election.
Supporters of his northern opponent Muhammadu Buhari rejected the results and took to the streets, burning churches, mosques and homes to the ground.
Tens of thousands of displaced people are sheltering in army barracks where they are being looked after by aid agencies but are unlikely to be able to vote in the governorship poll.
The opposition Action Congress of Nigeria party said at least three of its supporters were killed in the village of Ikot Osudu, in Akwa Ibom, overnight in an attempt to intimidate voters. The police said it was a simple armed robbery.
An Islamic sect is suspected of being behind bomb blasts that killed at least two people in northeast Nigeria on Sunday.
Africa's most populous country is split almost equally between a mainly Muslim north and a majority Christian south, although large minority groups live in both regions.
Jonathan may have been declared the winner but his ruling People's Democratic Party, which has seen its parliamentary majority weakened, is expected to lose ground at state level.
A poll by global research firm Ipsos published in This Day newspaper showed the PDP, which now controls more than two thirds of the 36 states, could lose nine to opposition parties.
The Congress for Progressive Change of former military ruler Buhari is expected to perform strongly in the north.
Additional reporting by Austin Ekeinde in Uyo, Samuel Tife in Yenagoa, Mike Oboh in Kano, Mayowa Oludare and Joe Penney in Lagos and Shuaibu Mohammed in Jos; writing by Joe Brock; editing by James Jukwey and Diana Abdallah