Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari had a commanding lead in Nigeria’s bitterly contested presidential election, according to a partial vote count Tuesday, and appeared set to oust President Goodluck Jonathan.
If Buhari wins and Jonathan steps down, it would mark the first time in Nigeria’s history that an opposition party has democratically taken control of the country from the ruling party.
Electoral officials hope to announce later Tuesday who will govern Africa’s richest and biggest nation.
Buhari crucially carried Lagos state, Nigeria’s commercial hub with the largest number of voters, according to results announced Tuesday, after taking crushing wins in three states in the Muslim north, where he is revered.
The austere and strict retired general, who says he is a convert to democracy, for the first time won states in the southwest and even took one third of votes in a southeastern state – an unprecedented development that some say reflects more of an anti-Jonathan than a pro-Buhari sentiment.
The counting was disrupted Tuesday by a representative of Jonathan’s party who protested that the proceedings were partial to Buhari. “We have lost confidence in you. You are partial,” shouted former Cabinet minister Peter Godsday Orubebe to the chairman of the electoral commission counting the vote. The opposition has also complained that electoral officials are partisan.
Results still are expected from Jonathan’s strongholds in the Christian south, including Rivers State. Jonathan is a Christian. Nigeria’s northern half is predominantly Muslim while its southern half is mostly Christian.
The winning candidate must take more than half of all votes and at least 25 percent of votes in two-thirds of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory at Abuja.
There have been delays in about a dozen states sending results to the counting center in Abuja because of logistical challenges that had election material being delivered by air, road, speedboat and, in some cases, mules and camels, spokesman Kayode Idowu of the Independent National Electoral Commission told The Associated Press.
Buhari’s showing in his fourth bid to become president was boosted by the formation of a coalition of major opposition parties two years ago. Its choice of Buhari as a single candidate presented the first real opportunity in the history of Nigeria to oust a sitting president.
“If indeed Buhari becomes president, it sends a clear message to the people in government that you cannot take the people of Nigeria for granted and that Nigerian democracy is maturing,” said journalist and political analyst Kadaria Ahmed.
Because of decades of military dictatorship, this is only the eighth election since the country won independence from Britain in 1960, and the fifth since democracy was restored in 1999.
Buhari, a Muslim, swept the northern states of Kano and Kaduna, as expected, but margin of his victory was unexpected. In Kano, the state with the second-largest number of voters, Buhari won 1.9 million votes to Jonathan’s 216,000. In Kaduna, Buhari won 1.1 million votes to Jonathan’s 484,000.
The count in Abuja is being carried out in the presence of party representatives, national and international observers and media.
The U.S. and Britain on Monday warned of “disturbing indications” that the tally could be subject to political interference. In a joint statement the two countries said they would be “very concerned” by any attempts to undermine the independence of the electoral commission and distort the will of the Nigerian people.
“So far, we have seen no evidence of systemic manipulation of the process. But there are disturbing indications that the collation process – where the votes are finally counted – may be subject to deliberate political interference,” said the statement signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart, Philip Hammond.
Jonathan’s party called the suggestions “absolute balderdash.” Campaign spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode told foreign reporters that they “completely reject the assertion or the notion that we are in any way interfering” with the electoral commission.
Widespread rigging has occurred in many previous elections, along with violence after those votes. New biometric cards aimed at stemming fraud were used but some newly imported card readers were not working properly, and Saturday’s voting was extended to Sunday in 300 out of 150,000 polling stations where that problem occurred, the election commission said.
Turnout was high Saturday among the nearly 60 million people eligible to vote in the election, which took place despite a campaign of violence by the Islamic extremists of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. SAPA