Young men dance in front of a makeshift figure of former military ruler and presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari in Kaduna, which was hit hard by interreligious violence during the 2011 election, on March 29, 2015. Nigeria counted ballots in its closely fought general election after failures in controversial new technology pushed voting into a second day, with officials calling for calm in the tense wait for a winner. AFP PHOTO / NICHOLE SOBECKI (Photo credit should read Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerians debate presidential elections on streets
01:13 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Polling day was beset with administrative inefficiencies that threatened to derail the process

But in the end it was viewed as a successful democratic process as 55 million went to the polls

Results of this fiercely-contested elections will be announced in the next few days

Lagos, Nigeria CNN  — 

They came in droves, men, women, young, old. Mothers with babies strapped tightly to their backs, pregnant women, the elderly, some who could barely walk unaided.

They waited patiently for sometimes seven, eight hours in the scorching sun. In parts of the country where it poured down with rain, they stood, barely shielded under makeshift umbrellas.

It was one of Africa’s biggest elections and it didn’t disappoint. There was high drama, violence and tensions but most of all an electorate determined to exercise their democratic right to vote. In northern Nigeria, women turned out in large numbers.

Women at an Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp in northern Nigeria queue to register for the election on March 28.

Some polling stations in Lagos opened on Saturday at around 8 a.m. and a queue of eager voters quickly formed. There was a palpable air of excitement.

“I’m voting because the stakes are too high. If I don’t vote, then I can’t complain when things don’t change,” said Akin Ojo, an accountant and tax practitioner in Ikeja, Lagos.

“This election is important,” he added. “People are starting to ask questions of their government. We need to hold them accountable.”

Mueez Akanni Adepoju, 38, brought his two daughters to the polling station in the Oshodi ward, Lagos Island.

He said: “I want Nigeria to change. I don’t want Nigerians to have to travel out of the country. We have everything here that anyone needs to survive but our government is not good.”

Complex task

Navigating and orchestrating Africa’s largest population of nearly 180 million in an election was never going to be easy.

Polling day was beset with administrative inefficiencies that threatened to derail the process. The much-vaunted card readers that were supposed to help combat election rigging failed to work in many areas and President Goodluck Jonathan was its highest profile victim.

In areas where the card readers did work, observers said they had a long battery life and many people were accredited without problems.

There were also widespread reports of people waiting for hours across the country for officials from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to open up polling stations. There was also a shortage of ballot papers in some parts.

Voting was extended through Sunday to make up for these shortcomings.

Yet, Nigerians were not deterred and turned out in their millions and waited patiently, sometimes long into the night, to cast their votes.

There was a party-like atmosphere at some polling stations, with one enterprising soul setting up a barbecue stand, known locally as suya.

At another, one man even proposed to his girlfriend, sending the Twittersphere into a frenzy. Although tempers boiled over at many from frustration at long periods of waiting in the blazing sun with no food and little water.

Human rights and peace activist Chitra Nagarajan lives and works in Abuja and was an independent observer at Saturday’s elections in the capital.

She said she was struck by the enthusiasm for voting.

READ: 7 reasons why we’ll never forget the 2015 elections

“Overall the voters were excellent. I spoke to many voters and many of them had been waiting for six, seven hours, maybe more.

“They were in high spirits, saying how much fun it was. They told me: ‘We are performing our civic responsibility. We are happy to wait and are treasuring the moment. It’s not everyday we get to do this,’” she said.

“For me it was lovely to see how people took voting, and their rights very seriously. Some people were there from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. People tend to focus on the negative overall, but voters should be commended.”

Journalist and activist Chude Jideonwo described the elections as a “joyful time.”

“Nigerians want democracy,” he said. “They are thoroughly engaged with the process and it was not like 2011 when we were begging the elites to come out to vote. They all queued with us to vote.

“Most of the people who didn’t vote was because of INEC’s inefficiency. The police were professional and very cooperative.

“The military stayed out of Lagos and there was a lot of cooperation between the voters at the polling (units). It was a joyful time making a decision for our country,” said Jideonwo.

Speaking about the logistical failures, he added: “We expect administrative inefficiency from our government agencies but the elections had to go ahead, ready or not.

“It’s easy to forgive INEC because we believe it’s a mistake of the head and not of the heart. (Attahiru) Jega, (Chairman of the electoral commission) is very trusted.”

Accountable and transparent

Another standout element of Saturday’s elections was how accountable and transparent they seemed to be. Nigerian elections are notorious for rigging and fraud but voters this time were determined that their votes would not be stolen.

“It was great how transparent the election was,” activist Nagarajan said. “The accreditation and voting happened in the open, under a tree in true Nigerian style. It’s fantastic for transparency and democracy.”

At polling stations across the country, voters watched the process keenly to make sure that the electoral process was followed to the letter.

They posted pictures and videos of delays and any irregularities to social media, particularly Twitter. These were tweeted and retweeted and INEC officials responded to problems reported at different polling units as they came in.

When ballot papers in one Victoria Island ward arrived late and unsealed, the crowd demanded that the presiding officer explain the reason why.

He was forced to hold up the ballot papers to show everyone they had not been tampered with.

Counting also happened swiftly right after the final ballot was cast. The entire process appeared transparent as the presiding officer held up individual ballot papers and read out who the vote was for.

The crowd counted along and in one polling station at Victoria Island, Lagos. chants of “Sai Baba,” Opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari’s nickname rang out after it emerged that his All Progressive Congress party won the popular vote at that unit.

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Official results are still being collated as voting continued through Sunday due to delays and malfunctioning card readers.

Election results are expected to be announced Tuesday.

Yet, for all the goodwill and enthusiasm for the vote, there were violent and ugly incidents that threatened to take the shine off what had largely been a successful democratic exercise.

In Rivers State, there were reports that the election results sheet had gone missing and there were attempts to arrest the gubernatorial candidate in Kaduna State on Friday before the election, according to Nigeria newspaper reports.

In the north, extremists killed at least 11 people at polling stations in the northeastern state of Gombe, residents said. INEC boss Jega confirmed at a press conference Sunday that two of its staff were among those killed in the attack.

But the deaths themselves do not detract from the success of the elections, Nagarajan said: “This is lamentable. It’s truly sad when people die in elections but we expected that some people would die.

“This is Nigerian politics and unfortunately it is violent. The numbers are far from what we were expecting. They are much lower.

“We say that by and large the elections ran smoothly.”

Jideonwo agreed saying: “Every Nigerian election has shown decreasing violence. There used to be random shooting in the head, smashing of ballot boxes, that has not happened this election. It has consistently gotten better.”

But as the results of this fiercely-contested elections are announced in the next few days, Nigerians, and the world, will be watching closely to see how the electorate responds, if their preferred candidate fails to win.

Follow @StephanieBusari on Twitter