After a false start and an acrimonious campaign, Nigerians headed to the polls Saturday to vote in what is expected to be Africa’s largest-ever election, and will determine who governs the continent’s top economy and oil producer.
As the country awoke, explosions rocked the northern states of Borno and Yobe, as Islamist insurgents launched what appeared to be coordinated attacks on security forces. Meanwhile, in several states card readers designed to verify voters’ identities weren’t working, according to voters and electoral officials.
By early afternoon, reports of irregularities were mounting. In one area of Nasarawa state, voting didn’t begin until 1 p.m.—five hours late. In the commercial capital, Lagos, ballot boxes were smashed and burned. Local media reported episodes of violence at other polling stations, including in Rivers and Osun states.
Nigeria’s election was initially scheduled for Feb. 16, but a surprise one-week delay further complicated a fractious contest, bringing new fraud accusations, fresh fears of postelection violence, and disruptions that have cost an estimated $2 billion.
Contesting the election are two heavyweights with a decadeslong history in a patronage-based political system. The winner, who is likely to be announced on Monday, will face one of Africa’s most formidable presidential in-trays: sluggish economic growth, entrenched corruption and a dizzying array of security threats.
In one corner is President Muhammadu Buhari, the former military junta leader who returned to power in 2015 elections on a promise to defeat Nigeria’s Islamist insurgency and quell rampant corruption. In the other, Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president and businessman whose dominance of the logistics sector brought him wealth and decades of graft allegations, is pledging to reinvigorate the economy.
Polls show a race that is too close to call, with Mr. Buhari a slight favorite, armed with the advantages of incumbency and a broader base among the more populous Muslim north.
“This election is so key. From the size of the queues here, the turnout seems to be very high,” said Augustine Nwauti, an accountant voting in the Jabi district of the capital, Abuja. “We are worried about rigging, but will see what happens over the next 48 hours.”
Mr. Buhari cast his vote in his home state of Katsina, prompting laughs as he looked over his wife’s shoulder to check which candidate she had supported. “I will be congratulating myself as I am going to be the winner,” the president told reporters.
Mr. Abubakar, voting in Adamawa state, said he was preparing for a preparing for a “successful transition.”
The comments were good-natured but the campaign has been rancorous.
Opposition leaders have repeatedly questioned the neutrality of the Independent National Electoral Commission and of the security agencies policing the poll, raising fears the result could be challenged on the streets. Mr. Buhari this week issued a warning that Nigeria’s army would kill anyone deemed to be tampering with the ballots, a threat the opposition said was illegal and designed to intimidate.
The fiery rhetoric and specter of military involvement have escalated tensions across this vast nation of 190 million people, which emerged from a series of military governments in 1999 and has repeatedly suffered postelection violence. Last weekend’s delay undermined trust in the electoral process, making challenges and the prospect of violent protest more likely, diplomats and policy analysts said.
International observers were deployed across the country to monitor the vote.
Mr. Buhari, 76, and Mr. Abubakar, 72, are both Muslims from northern states in a country split evenly between a Christian south and Islamic north. They are both political insiders, but have campaigned on competing visions.
Mr. Buhari is running on a pledge to continue fighting insurgency and corruption. Mr. Abubakar, a father of 26 widely known as “Atiku,” has focused on the economy, pledging to kick-start growth with a large privatization program that would include the state oil company.
Diplomats said the outcome and conduct of the poll could have a kinetic effect across the continent—for good or ill.
Nigeria’s peaceful transition in 2015 from one democratically elected government to another was seen as a milestone that strengthened democracy across the region. But recent elections in Congo and Zimbabwe were widely seen as flawed, denting the march of democracy.
Turnout will be key. When the 2015 polls were delayed by six weeks due to security challenges in the northeast, turnout dropped 10 percentage points to 44%.
Many Nigerians say the election delay has made it too expensive to travel home to vote again. Almost 90 million Nigerians live on less than $2 a day and nearly a quarter are unemployed.
“I can’t afford to close my store again for days and days,” said Samuel Julius, who has a roadside stall selling snacks. “This time I no vote, but I am praying hard for Nigeria.”
Write to Joe Parkinson at email@example.com