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Security under the spotlight as Nigerians vote in critical elections

Luis Tato, AFP | An electoral commission official checks an electoral manual while ballot boxes and other voting material arrive at a polling station in Yola, Nigeria Feb. 22, 2019.

An attack in northeastern Nigeria by suspected Islamist militants just hours before polls were set to open in Nigeria’s presidential election Saturday underscored the challenges confronting Africa’s most populous nation.

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Nigerians began voting for a new president Saturday after a week-long delay that has raised political tempers, sparked conspiracy claims and stoked fears of violence, including terrorist attacks and post-electoral unrest.

Just hours before polls were set to open, suspected Islamist attacked a northeastern Nigerian town, forcing residents to flee.

"We have fled, along with our wives and children and hundreds of others," Ibrahim Gobi, who lives in the town of Geidam in Yobe state, told Reuters by telephone. "We are right now running and hiding in the bushes."

Around the same time a Reuters witness said blasts were heard in Maiduguri, the capital of the neighbouring state of Borno.

Northeast Nigeria has been hit by the decade-long Boko Haram insurgency with attacks in recent months carried out by offshoot Islamic State in West Africa Province.

Security has been tightened across the country following a campaign season that saw 233 people killed in 67 incidents of election-related violence from October to Friday, according to independent analysts, SBM Intelligence.

Reporting from Lagos, FRANCE 24’s Anna Cunningham said people arriving in the city to vote Saturday had told her there were multiple checkpoints manned by the military. “The interesting thing is that it is actually the duty of the police to do security during elections. The rule is, should measures be needed, then they can call in the military. However we are seeing military checkpoints across cities today,” said Cunningham.

FRANCE 24's Anna Cunningham: There are 'accusations of vote rigging coming from all over Nigeria'

Crowded presidential race

President Muhammadu Buhari was one of the first in line to vote as nearly 120,000 polling stations across the country began opening. He voted in his hometown of Daura, in northwest Nigeria.

Buhari is seeking re-election in a crowded 2019 campaign that has more than 70 presidential hopefuls, including the main opposition party candidate, Atiku Abubakar.

The election, due to be held a week ago, was postponed around five hours before polling stations were set to open and there are concerns that the delay may hurt turnout.

The electoral commission blamed logistical factors for the delay and denied political pressure was behind the decision.

Presidential elections in 2011 and 2015 were also delayed over logistics and security concerns but Buhari on Friday urged Nigerians "to go out and vote", promising that there would be adequate security for the ballot.

Colossal task holding Nigerian elections

Economy tops campaign agenda

The biggest challenge facing Nigeria’s next leader is boosting an economy still struggling to recover from its first recession in 25 years, which it slipped into in 2016 as crude prices crashed and militants attacked energy facilities in the Niger Delta. Crude sales make up 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings.

"Instability is a rising concern but a weak economy is being felt in all sectors and country-wide so we believe it will be the preeminent voter concern," Benedict Craven, analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told AFP.

Buhari's critics say his much-touted focus on rooting out corruption may be offset by his handling of the economy. Despite the president's campaign against graft, there have not been any significant convictions in his first term.

Nearly a quarter of the workforce is unemployed, much higher than when Buhari, a former military ruler who was later elected president, took over in 2015. The cost of living has also risen rapidly, with inflation of 11.37 percent in January - just short of a seven-month high reached the previous month.

Buhari is the flagbearer of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) while Atiku spearheads the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP). Both candidates have promised to address Nigeria’s economic problems.

The pair are both Muslims from the north of the country.

The south has favoured the PDP in the past, while the north is Buhari's stronghold.

The number of eligible voters stands at 72.8 million people. To be declared winner, the candidate with the most votes must have at least one quarter of the vote in two thirds of Nigeria's 36 states and the capital. Otherwise there is a runoff.

'Multiple checkpoints manned by military'

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)

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