Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has drawn massive crowds during his state-by-state election campaigning in his oil-rich nation, but he campaigned to a nearly empty parade ground Tuesday in the megacity of Lagos.
The empty concrete grandstands of Tafawa Balewa Square showed Jonathan holds a shaky grasp over some of the country's 36 states ahead of an April 9 presidential election. While many expect the machinery and muscle of the ruling People's Democratic Party to propel the marine biologist into office, opposition parties are claiming more of a share in the young democracy.
Lagos state, home to 14 million people, remains the power base of the Action Congress of Nigeria, the nation's strongest opposition party. It also holds 6.2 million registered voters. Jonathan's supporters are desperate to carry the state to counterbalance the country's Muslim north, which remains hesitant about the Christian president who came to power after the death of Nigeria's elected Muslim leader.
"Lagos state is not a state we'll play with," Jonathan told a crowd of several thousand gathered in the commercial hub of Lagos Island. "We have no enemies. We have no one to fight."
But the parade ground remained mostly empty, as local unemployed young men fought among themselves for free campaign handouts and tried to pickpocket those attending the event. One young man pushed his way by journalists, rolled what appeared to be a marijuana cigarette within 10 yards (9 meters) of Jonathan and repeatedly shouted: "Team Nigeria!"
Others attending the rally appeared to have been bussed to the event.
Attendee Doris Akaniru, 44, said Jonathan represented a chance for a free and fair election.
"We have seen the dividends of democracy from Jonathan," Akaniru said. "He is transparent. He is not a tribal man."
However, the majority of Lagos appears to support serving Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola. Fashola, a member of the Action Congress of Nigeria, is a well-spoken lawyer whose beautification and bus projects won the hearts of both wealthy financiers and the long-suffering poor eking out a living in the sprawling megacity.
The opposition party has also made strides to take power in four states. The People's Democratic Party finds itself beset by court decisions to pull its candidates from office after flawed 2007 elections. In the north, the Congress for Progressive Change led by former military dictator and presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari has drawn the attention of voters. Jonathan's first rally last month in Nasarawa state saw youths throw stones at Jonathan's convoy, sparking several days of violence there.
Fraud has marred Nigerian elections since Africa's most populous nation became a democracy in 1999. The ruling People's Democratic Party largely has been the beneficiary of that fraud, leading some to worry the party may resort to voter tampering and intimidation to retain control of the country.
Western diplomats have urged Jonathan to allow a free and fair election, telling him he'll win such a vote.
But it appears that Jonathan has kept some of his more controversial backers. At Tuesday's rally, Bode George, a former chairman of the Nigerian Port Authority and ruling party gadfly, sat only five seats away from Jonathan. George was released Saturday from federal prison being convicted on charges stemming from a fraud case worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"People normally say they don't want history to repeat itself," former President Olusegun Obasanjo told the crowd. "When the history is good, we should pray that history repeats itself."