With hundreds already killed and others frightened from the ballot box, Nigerians are being asked to vote Tuesday in the nation's volatile gubernatorial elections, this time choosing the pivotal politicians who control billions of dollars in oil money.
Religious tensions are high in Africa's most populous nation after riots erupted across the country's predominantly Muslim north last week when results showed Christian President Goodluck Jonathan had clinched the election. Angry mobs set fire to houses where election workers were staying, and young female poll staffers were raped while charred corpses lined highways.
Tuesday's gubernatorial vote is the final ballot in Nigeria, following weeks of legislative and presidential elections that ultimately forced some 40,000 people to flee their home. Election officials postponed the governors' races in the two northern states hardest hit by postelection violence but vowed to press ahead with ballots elsewhere.
"Some have paid the ultimate price for democracy and I am sure that I speak the minds of all Nigerians if I say that the nation will be eternally grateful to them," Attahiru Jega, chief of Nigeria's Independent Election Commission said. "One way of immortalizing them is to ensure that we complete the remaining elections successfully and not succumb to the designs of people who want to scuttle our collective aspiration for a strong, united and democratic country."
The gubernatorial races carry even more weight though because governors represent the closest embodiment of power many ever see in a nation of 150 million people. The positions provide many politicians with personal fiefdoms where oil money sluices into unwatched state coffers that exceed those of neighboring nations. Meanwhile, hospital shelves remain barren of drugs and decaying schools have no teachers.
Twenty-nine states will hold their gubernatorial elections Tuesday, while some delayed federal legislative polls also will be held at the same time. Five states will not hold gubernatorial races after a court decision before the presidential election extended the tenure of those seated there.
However, questions remain about who will even be manning the polling stations. Most election workers come from Nigeria's National Youth Service Corps, a mandatory yearlong assignment for all Nigerians who graduate from university before the age of 30. Many have fled from the assignments after the violence that swept across Nigeria's north left their colleagues beaten, raped or killed.
That violence, apparently started by Muslims supporting opposition candidate and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, left at least 500 people dead though government officials have declined to release a toll for fear of inciting more riots. After the first wave of killings, Christians launched reprisal attacks that killed Muslims as well.
In northern states, where Buhari's Congress for Progressive Change remains strong, some worry more violence could accompany Tuesday's election as its supporters vote against the ruling People's Democratic Party led by the country's Christian president.
Nigeria's northeast also remains at risk, as an explosion at a hotel killed three people and wounded 14 others in the city of Maiduguri on Sunday, police said Monday. While no one claimed responsibility for that attack, a radical Muslim sect recently vowed to keep fighting there.
Violence also remains likely in the country's oil-rich Niger Delta, a region of swamplands and mangroves about the size of Portugal. Akwa Ibom state, home to many oil fields operated by the Nigerian subsidiary of U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., already has seen rioters burn cars and torch a campaign office for Jonathan in recent weeks.
The region remains awash in military-grade assault rifles and weapons from a long-running militancy, though attacks on oil companies dropped after a 2009 government-sponsored amnesty program.
Akwa Ibom also is a state where open and flagrant rigging took place during Nigeria's fatally flawed 2007 elections. At one polling station that year, an election official shoved an entire booklet of ballots, already pre-voted, into a ballot box as a European Union observer watched.
Maria Owi, the chief official of the Independent National Electoral Commission in Akwa Ibom, said she hoped rigging "is reduced" with this election. She made the comment Monday after turning over a newspaper on her desk with a bold headline already accusing an election official of corruption.
"The major players are the politicians. They should make sure they should not make any attempts to rig the election," Owi told The Associated Press. "They encourage these youths to be violent. I'm sure the youths cannot go out on their own and be violent."
Around the state capital Uyo, about 360 miles (580 kilometers) from Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, the face of Gov. Godswill Akpabio bears down from billboards and banners, asking voters to allow "God's will be done again." Akpabio is the ruling party candidate, his main opposition coming from Action Congress of Nigeria candidate John James Akpan Udoedehe.
Udoedehe has faced treason and murder charges in recent weeks stemming from the unrest, charges his lawyer describe as political smears. Udoedehe recently received bail and will be free Tuesday to cast his own vote.
On Monday, police raided a weekly newspaper, arresting members of its staff. Yet many hope this election would be different, like Mfon'Obon Jackson, 45, who has walked the streets in her neighborhood in the past, ringing a bell to call people out to vote.
"Democracy: we dey laugh, we dey dance," Jackson said in pidgin English. "It's not a matter of fighting."
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Lagos, Nigeria and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.