Voting goes on amid ruins after Nigeria rioting

AP News
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Posted: Apr 28, 2011 7:13 PM
Voting goes on amid ruins after Nigeria rioting

Among the debris of burned homes, destroyed businesses and lives lost on one dirt road in this city on a fault line between Nigeria's two major faiths, the bright green ballot boxes stood out Thursday against the misery inflicted here.

Both Christians and Muslims inked their fingers to cast their vote in gubernatorial elections held in Bauchi and Kaduna states Thursday, delayed by the postelection violence last week that killed at least 500 people across Nigeria's north. Voting went smoothly, but both areas saw low voter turnout as soldiers took over security for the hard-hit states and many remain displaced by the rioting.

But it remains unclear what the vote has changed. The nation's ruling political party retained control over many state governorships. Many believe outright rigging still took place in what observers call the cleanest election Nigeria has held since becoming a democracy in 1999.

"They burned my house, but they didn't burn my life," said Cecilia Aliyu, 45, a primary school teacher who lost her home. "So I have the right to cast my vote."

Many left Kaduna, 111 miles (180 kilometers) away from the country's capital of Abuja, after the rioting and just before voting began. Shops remained closed and a herd of cattle grazed down one empty street in the city's downtown. Some party leaders carried bullhorns and shouted in the local Hausa language to draw frightened voters out of their homes.

Kaduna state's Christian governor Patrick Yakowa took office after Muslim leader Namadi Sambo was picked to serve as vice president under Christian President Goodluck Jonathan. Yakowa's ascension sparked earlier unrest in a city where more than 2,000 died in 2000 riots.

Yakowa faces a challenge from a Muslim opposition already emboldened by presidential results that show the region voted against the ruling People's Democratic Party. Allegations over voter fraud here arose as it became clear Jonathan won the election. That in turn 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.

"It's not that people are afraid. ... It's just when we voted, we didn't get who we voted for," said voter Zainab Aliyu, 50, in Hausa. "Some people were disenfranchised and decided to stay home."

In Bauchi state, polling stations also saw low voter turnout, as a heavy security presence could be seen on the roads in the state capital. Some polling centers were staffed by election officials brought in from neighboring states, as poll workers from Nigeria's National Youth Service Corps boycotted after several members died in the rioting last week.

The gubernatorial races carry tremendous importance. The positions provide many politicians with personal fiefdoms where oil money sluices into unwatched state coffers that exceed those of neighboring nations.

In other state gubernatorial elections held Tuesday, official elections results released Thursday showed the People's Democratic Party won 16 states, regaining the former opposition-held Kano state. Opposition parties won six states, while the nation's Independent National Electoral Commission said a race in Imo state remained "inconclusive."

The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, largely praised the election while talking to journalists in Washington.

"Following the deplorable postelection violence of the previous week, we are heartened that many Nigerian voters went to the polls to vote in an environment largely free of violence," Carson said Thursday. "We remain concerned by allegations of fraud and ballot box snatching in various jurisdictions and we strongly urge Nigerian authorities to investigate and take corrective actions on all of these allegations."

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.

Many burned the homes of traditional rulers across the north in the postelection violence, something once unthinkable in a region that values the advice of elders.

"They feel their leaders betrayed them," said Aliko Mohammed, a leader in a forum of northern leaders.

While observers said the vote appeared to be largely fair, incidents of violence, intimidation and ballot-box theft marred elections the country hoped would show the world it had become a legitimate democracy after 12 years of civilian rule.

Yet the tension at the polls and soldiers in the street proved otherwise. As voters thronged around one polling station, one underage voter carried two separate voter's cards for herself in Kaduna. Young boys also entered the line to vote and men threw punches and shouted at each other.

A green armored car carrying soldiers soon came down the narrow street. A soldier inside shouted at a foreign journalist to turn off her video camera as another manned a mounted machine gun on top of the vehicle.

"Please, we are protecting you and protecting our image," one soldier shouted of out of a loud speaker as they drove away.

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Associated Press writers Shehu Saulawa in Bauchi, Nigeria and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.