Two states in oil-rich Nigeria hit hard by religious rioting that killed at least 500 people following the country's presidential election will hold gubernatorial races Thursday. Whether the public emerges from ruined neighborhoods to vote amid burned churches and mosques remains another question.
Bauchi and Kaduna states in Nigeria's Muslim north will hold the local races after the majority of the country voted Tuesday in the polls. Initial results released Wednesday showed Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party lost at least two states to opposition parties, while taking Kano state back in the north. However, observers complained about ballot box thefts while violence accompanied the polls in Africa's most populous nation.
Though these elections were better than previously marred ones carried out in the 12-year-old democracy, the troubles showed Nigeria still faces challenges in holding credible elections.
"You see, in this country, democracy is premature," said Abdullah Fanap, 68, who voted Tuesday in the rural village of Yelwa in Plateau state. "Here in the north, we have a long way to go."
The gubernatorial races carry tremendous importance 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.
In Kaduna, 111 miles (180 kilometers) away from the country's capital of Abuja, the state's Christian governor faces a challenge from a Muslim opposition already emboldened by presidential results showing the region voted against the People's Democratic Party. Allegations over voter fraud, as it became clear President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, won the election, sparked the violence that engulfed the city and destroyed villages in its rural pasturelands.
At least 500 people died at the hands of Muslim rioters or Christians carrying out reprisal attacks.
Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the past decade in Nigeria. In Kaduna alone, more than 2,000 died as the government moved to enact Islamic Shariah law in 2000. In 2002, rioting over a newspaper article suggesting the prophet Muhammad would have married a Miss World pageant contestant killed dozens here. But the roots of the sectarian conflict across the north often have more to do with struggles for political and economic dominance.
Opportunities remain few for those in the arid north, as jobs are scarce and a formal education remains out of the reach of many in a nation where most earn less than $2 a day. Meanwhile, politicians spend billions of dollars of oil revenues with little or no oversight _ fueling popular dissent.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said that Jonathan will need to do more to tackle the poverty and unemployment that helped to fuel unrest across the north.
"They're lashing out and being manipulated and I think that question has to be addressed and I think it has to be a priority in President Jonathan's new term," he said.
For his part, Jonathan continues to keep a low profile in the country after suggesting the postelection violence reminded him of the nation's bloody post-independence chaos that led to a 30-month civil war that killed more than 1 million people.
After voting Tuesday near his Niger Delta home, Jonathan suggested that he could declare a state of emergency in Bauchi and Kaduna states if their delayed elections aren't held. Under a state of emergency, the president can remove a state civilian government and appoint a military ruler, bringing soldiers to the streets to quell the region.
"You declare a state of emergency in a state or country based on our constitution _ that is, when the social circumstances create an environment that governance becomes extremely difficult _ then you want to militarize the whole place," Jonathan said.
In results announced Wednesday night on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority, the People's Democratic Party won gubernatorial elections in Akwa Ibom, Benue, Enugu, Kano, Kwara and Rivers states. Opposition parties beat the ruling party in Nasarawa and Oyo states, while holding onto Borno and Lagos states.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria and Maggie Fick in Yelwa, Nigeria contributed to this report.