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Counting Starts in Delayed Nigeria Vote02/23 10:15

   DAURA, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigerian officials began counting votes in its 
delayed election on Saturday, after gunfire and explosions started voting day, 
as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term in Africa's most populous 
nation.

   The vote, widely seen as too close to call, also was marred by hours-long 
delays at polling stations across the vast West African country. Polls closed 
in many areas, although voting continued in units that opened late. Preliminary 
results are expected in about two to four days, according to observers.

   Nigerian security authorities openly acknowledged an extremist attack in the 
northeast city of Maiduguri shortly before voting began on Saturday. Boko Haram 
extremists "attempted to infiltrate" the state capital by launching artillery 
fire, likely to disrupt the elections, said a statement by Borno state police. 
Nigerian security forces earlier Saturday said the blasts had been their own in 
a show of force to deter extremists.

   "Some missiles strayed into vulnerable locations" but there were no 
casualties and the extremists retreated, said the new statement. However, a 
security official said one soldier was killed and four wounded. The official 
insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

   The army also confirmed a "futile" attack on a security outpost in Geidam in 
Yobe state. Voting turnout appeared to be light as authorities tried to calm 
panicked, skeptical residents.

   Gunfire also was heard in Port Harcourt in Nigeria's restive south, where 
the military presence was heavier than in past elections. One convoy in Delta 
state contained more than 25 vehicles with battle-ready soldiers. Later in the 
day, soldiers in Rivers state fired on suspected ballot snatchers, with four 
people arrested.

   The attacks did not stop voting across Nigeria.

   The incumbent Buhari brushed aside reporters' questions about whether he 
would accept a loss to top challenger Atiku Abubakar , a billionaire former 
vice president. The president, first in line to vote in his northern hometown 
of Daura, jokingly checked the name on his wife's ballot.

   A smiling Abubakar, after voting in his hometown of Yola in the northeast, 
told reporters that "I look forward to a successful transition." He previously 
pledged to accept the results, provided they are credible.

   Buhari called the voting process smooth, but a coalition of civic groups 
said multiple polling units had not opened more than four hours after the 
official start. Delays were reported in Delta, Anambra and Akwa Ibom states as 
well as in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

   Local broadcaster Channels TV showed a crowd still waiting after noon for 
the start of voting in the north-central state of Nasarawa. Abubakar's party 
called such delays "deliberate," claiming overwhelming support there.

   In north-central Kaduna, lines were long but impatient while waiting for 
materials to arrive nearly three hours late. Elsewhere, some officials worried 
that heavy security could intimidate potential voters.

   Traffic restrictions were in place across the country, which also closed its 
borders. Raphael Dele, a popular singer in Yola, said he had walked over 10 
kilometers (6 miles) to his polling station "because there is no room for 
excuses."

   Many Nigerians said the election will be decided by economic issues after a 
rough term for Buhari during which the country suffered a rare, months-long 
recession and unemployment grew significantly to 23 percent.

   The president "has failed," said David Ojo, a barber in Danbatta in northern 
Kano state who joined excited voters in supporting Buhari in 2015. They assumed 
the former military dictator would solve the insecurity crisis and that 
prosperity would follow, Ojo said. Neither has occurred.

   Buhari in a final address to the nation on Friday vowed that the more than 
72 million Nigerians eligible to vote would be able to do so in peace.

   But the Boko Haram extremist group, its Islamic State-affiliated offshoot in 
the northeast and various agitators across the country, including bandits, oil 
militants and youths hired by politicians to disrupt the vote, could have other 
plans.

   "People are very sensitive about this election" in the north because both 
candidates hail from the region, said A. Rufai Mohammed, voting in the northern 
city of Kano. Yet he was concerned about the lower turnout from four years ago 
and blamed apathy. "What we are looking for is results, not excuses," he said 
of the president.

   Observers said the delay of the election from last week, blamed on 
logistical challenges, could favor Buhari and the ruling party, with some 
Nigerians saying they didn't have the resources to travel to their place of 
registration a second time.

   "After all, it is not my brother that is contesting," said Patience Okoro in 
Agbor in the south. "So why will I kill myself or waste my time?"

   The delay also could hurt the election's credibility, some said.

   "The postponement casts a lingering doubt on the neutrality of (the 
electoral commission) such that unless Atiku is declared the winner, many will 
still believe that (the commission) colluded with the government to rig him 
out," said Jideofor Adibe, associate professor of political science at Nasarawa 
State University.

   Some of those who turned out, however, dismissed concerns about having to 
wait.

   "It does not matter, it is for the will of God to take place," voter Oseni 
Ukweni said in the capital, Abuja. "Everybody is excited to be here."


(KA)

 
 
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