A group of women danced around the perimeter of a ruling party rally in Nigeria's capital Saturday, their eyes peering out of masks of President Goodluck Jonathan's face.
The masks seemed imply everyone identifies with Jonathan, an accidental state governor who took power in the oil-rich nation after the death of its elected Muslim leader last year. But this is a nation of 150 million people, two major religions, 250 ethnicities and a populace tired of unkept promises by a government spending billions of unaccounted-for dollars.
With Jonathan losing support and opposition parties gaining ground, Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party faces what could be its first serious challenge in holding onto power in a country where democracy took hold only 12 years ago. Some even suggest the April 9 presidential election could be pushed into a second round of voting, which would be a first for Nigeria and a true test of democracy for a nation with a history of marred polls.
"If the elections are much improved _ if Jonathan is not rigged in on the first ballot _ then the chances of a runoff are good," former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell said.
Nigeria's election law has a two-prong test to determine a winner in its multiparty system. To win outright in the first round, a candidate must win overall, as well as carry at least a quarter of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of the country's 36 states and its capital.
Since democracy came into effect, the candidates of the People's Democratic Party have won outright in the nation's three presidential elections. However, those wins seem to come from the party's muscle and money, the true points of power in a nation where ballot boxes go missing and voters face intimidation and attacks. International observers roundly rejected Nigeria's 2007 poll as being rigged and marred by thuggery, though it represented the nation's first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power.
Now, former military ruler and perennial presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari is gaining tremendous grass-roots support across Nigeria's Muslim north. Other Muslim candidates also may take votes away from Jonathan, a Christian from the nation's south, as some of the country's northern elite believe another northerner should be running in his place.
"My reading continues to be that Buhari has substantial support around the country _ but not among the elites _ or the governors," said Campbell, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And the governors are at the center of rigging.
The ruling party seemed to drive that point home Saturday, bringing all of its governors on stage to deliver speeches during the rally. The powerful governors spoke not about policies or promises of service, but rather pledged to deliver their states to Jonathan and the ruling party.
"In the Bible and the Quran, you are qualified to be president," Bauchi state governor Isa Yuguda said. He later added the state "can bring you votes" and that Jonathan had already won the Muslim-dominated northern state.
However, Yuguda himself only defected to the party after running as an opposition candidate. Niger state Gov. Babangida Aliyu also slipped in his own speech when telling Jonathan that he would "be elected in the first round." Mentioning that before would have been unthinkable.
Divisions about ethnicity and religion still surface violently in Nigeria, despite it going through a brutal civil war in the late 1960s that saw more than 1 million people die. Former military ruler and President Olusegun Obasanjo implied such divisions could arise through supporting other candidates who didn't share his vision of Nigerian identity.
"It can destabilize, if not destroy, our country," Obasanjo said.
Jonathan, for his part, also warned politicians against employing violence during the election. Both Jonathan and the leader of the country's Independent National Electoral Commission have promised a free and fair vote. However, election workers have clamored for life insurance and police protection.
"Politics does not mean you have to carry a knife and stab people," Jonathan told the thousands gathered for Saturday's rally at Abuja's Eagle Square parade ground. "Politics does not mean you have to pick up a gun and shoot people."
However, the presence of hundreds of police and security officers at the rally did not stop violence. Local unemployed youths, hired to fill the crowd at the rally and wave signs, rushed into the stands at one point, slapping women and dousing them with bottled water. At another point, women pulled each other's hair and knocked others over to grab souvenir plastic plates bearing Jonathan's face. Police stood by and watched both fights.
As Jonathan gave his speech, the crowd already began emptying out of Eagle Square, their shouting and shoving drowning out the words of the soft-spoken marine biologist turned president.
It will be up to election officials and police to determine whether the nation's coming elections will be fair. And voters will decide who Jonathan is and if the ruling party should hold onto the country for another four years.
"I'm wearing the president," said dancer Juliet Zifwaei, 38, who wore a Jonathan mask on her head during the rally. "It's a symbol of the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
She paused, then asked a passer-by: "Do you like it?"