Scenes From Nigeria’s Elections

KADUNA, Nigeria–The hundreds-strong crowd of young men–the same “ready army” often used by opportunistic Nigerian politicians to rig past elections–tensed, momentarily surged, then broke into rowdy cheers, satisfied with the result of a dispute during the ballot counting process. Scores of police–a few of them on horseback, all toting AK-47s and tear gas guns–had already proved utterly incapable of controlling the youth mob as they eagerly watched an equally young polling official separate and tally the votes in Saturday’s presidential vote. The young men, who are statistically most likely to be unemployed secondary school or even university graduates, fortunately opted to contain themselves and settled back down to continue observing the first genuinely legitimate elections Nigeria has held since it abandoned military dictatorship 12 years ago.

As the sun began to fall behind a crescent-topped minaret of a mosque in a posh, mainly Muslim neighborhood in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna, this energetic crowd was joined by dozens of domestic elections observers and political party agents, a handful of Nigerian and international journalists, and some well-dressed and articulate Muslim women. Everyone wanted to watch with his or her own eyes as the ballots were counted at a polling station of great symbolic import for the presidential vote.

Earlier in the day, Nigerian vice president Namadi Sambo had cast his vote at this very station, several blocks from his family house. Sambo is the running mate of “accidental incumbent” president Goodluck Jonathan of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. Sambo, a northern Muslim, is generally unpopular among his people in Kaduna, where he served as governor until assuming the vice presidency last year after the death of president Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim who passed away three years into his four-year term.

The local discontent with Sambo is directly linked to the growing resentment generally of the PDP among northern Nigerians. In the eyes of northerners, the latest offense happened when the party’s southern “Big Men”–think former president Olesugun Obasanjo–prevented a northerner from running as the PDP canddiate in the 2011 elections. This violated the party’s north-south “zoning” arrangement–a deal that has preserved a semblance of unity during the latest phase of Nigerian democracy. According to the “zoning” deal, the north was due to have eight years at the helm of the presidency after Obasanjo quit power in 2007. But after President Yar’Adua’s death last year, his vice president–Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the oil-rich Delta in the south–took over.

In the view of the masses gathering at Vice President Sambo’s polling station in Kaduna on Saturday, Jonathan and the PDP represent northern disenfranchisement under democratic rule since 1999. For this reason and others, Muhammadu Buhari, a one-time military ruler of Nigeria, took on a larger-than-life status during his campaign, becoming a lightening rod for the disenchanted northern population, the majority of whom are desperately poor despite the country’s enormous wealth.

“We want change!” the crowd chanted as the ballots were counted. Many voters turned citizen observers recorded the counting process on their cell phones, including one young man in a lime green caftan who perched in a tree to get a better vantage point for observing the tallying. “Sai Buhari!” (“Only Buhari!” in the Hausa language) they repeated again and again, as men and women, young and old, anxiously waited to see the PDP defeated at their local polling station, all the while railing insults against the ruling party.

“For the simple fact that the PDP enjoys incumbency, they have money at their disposal, they have control of the security [organs], so they can do anything,” one cross-legged man in a caftan remarked, while fellow Buhari supporters nearby passed around a cell phone with a text message detailing the various sums of money–allegedly adding up to 1.9 billion naira (about $120 million)–distributed by the PDP in Kaduna state in order to rig the election. A veiled woman said she supported Buhari because he’s the only politician she knows who “is not concerned about villas and money.” She said that “the masses want him” because he’s “never been tainted by corruption.” In his tenure as a military ruler of the country from 1983 to 1985, Buhari sacked many corrupt politicians but was criticized at the time for his abusive means of doing so.

When Buhari was declared the winner at the polling station, cries of “Allahu Akbar!” rang out, people jumped up and down, and the youth mob celebrated in the streets, some of them popping wheelies on their motorbikes. Despite the extremely local nature of this victory, it felt for a moment as though the rallyers were celebrating the fact that change had come to their country through the ballot box.

The final, country-wide results of the vote have not yet been announced by the electoral commission. However, the intense north-south divide among the electorate in the presidential vote was confirmed today as results from around the country streamed in: President Jonathan is ahead in the mainly Christian south, while Buhari appears to have dominated the north.

It still seems unlikely that the vote wil produce a run-off between Jonathan and Buhari; furthermore, Nigerian analysts have expressed skepticism as to whether Buhari really would bring the much-referenced “change” Nigerian needs.

Jamal, a father of four whom I interviewed at a polling station on Saturday afternoon, deserve a better status quo from their leaders. Jamal, who holds a linguistics degree but is unemployed, expressed concern about the future of the country’s youth. Jamal said that while the Nigerian political elite send their children abroad for school, they use the impoverished young generation stuck at home to stoke local “religious and tribal divisions” to distract attention from their own failings as leaders. Although Jamal said he was a Buhari supporter, he rejected the idea that northerners were voting for the popular opposition candidate because of his religion, ethnicity, or region of origin. He said he would vote for anyone, “whether he is a Christian or Jew,” as long as the candidate seemed capable of changing the status quo. “A country like Nigeria, we are rich,” Jamal reasoned. “Why is that people are suffering? In 12 years [since military rule ended], no infrastructure has come to this country,” proceeding to chart the injustices inherent in his country today. “We are protesting with our vote,” Jamal said.