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Nigeria Holds Democratic Elections

December 5, 1998

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) _ Shops closed and the government ordered all vehicles off the roads during Saturday’s local elections, seen as a historic first step toward democracy for Africa’s most populous nation.

Nigeria, a country filled with ethnic tension, crime and corruption, came to a joyous and temporary halt as people walked to polling stations. The silent streets were a stark contrast to the usual frenzied commerce and paralyzing traffic of the nation’s cities.

It is the first vote since Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar outlined his plan earlier this year to give power to civilians in May after presidential elections Feb. 15. Abubakar took power after the unexpected June death of Gen. Sani Abacha, who detained, tortured and occasionally killed his opponents.

Nigeria has a history of armed coups and military meddling in politics. The country has been ruled by civilians for only 10 years since independence in 1960. Abubakar has promised that the military will not intervene in the transition to civilian rule.

In general, the mood was buoyant, though borders were closed and about 100,000 riot police patrolled the major cities and rural villages.

At least one violent incident reportedly marred the vote. Six people died when supporters of two rival parties at a polling station near the town of Warri, 125 miles southeast of Lagos, attacked each other with guns and machetes, witnesses told journalists there. The fighting reportedly occurred after an exchange of vote-rigging accusations and was broken up by police. There was no official confirmation of the incident.

At a police station in Lagos, officers released prisoners awaiting trial so they could vote. It was unclear if the prisoners would be required to return to jail.

``Even detainees are entitled to vote,″ a police sergeant on duty said on condition of anonymity. ``I will also go vote when I leave duty.″

More than 50 million people were registered to vote for 8,800 municipal government posts. Nine parties have registered, and three have fielded candidates nationwide. Abubakar described the turnout as ``commendable.″

Initial results were not expected until Sunday, at the earliest.

Saturday’s poll was a test run. The national electoral commission is inexperienced, and the political parties have vague platforms and are relatively unknown. Any party that fails to pick up at least 5 percent of the vote in 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states will be eliminated from the ballot for the presidential poll.

Nigeria, with a population of more than 100 million, has failed to tackle grinding poverty despite fabulous oil wealth that has made it the world’s sixth-largest producer.

Abubakar has warned that parties campaigning on divisive ethnic lines will be barred from the presidential poll. Ethnic tensions prompted authorities to cancel polling in a number of towns and villages in oil-rich southwestern Nigeria.

After official campaigns began last week, colorful ads promising jobs and ethnic representation filled radio and television airwaves and crowds of people followed cars blaring election promises on loudspeakers.

It was too early to say whether the elections would be judged free and fair by foreign observers.

Scattered logistical problems were reported, including a few missing names on voter lists in Abuja and Lagos and the late opening of some polling stations. Officials also said youths stole election material and disrupted voting in some communities in the western state of Osun.

Ten women fell into a sewage drain filled with human waste that collapsed beneath a line of voters in the village of Ijegun on the outskirts of Lagos, the News Agency of Nigeria reported. It said they all were rescued.

Some voters said they did not know who the candidates in their constituencies were. They said they were voting for whoever represented their favorite party. Others chose individuals who took a strong anti-military stance during the unpopular rule of Abacha.

``I voted for the Alliance for Democracy,″ said Lanre Komolafe, an engineer in Lagos. ``Their members fought Abacha under very difficult circumstances.″

Femi Olayemi, a civil servant in Lagos, said he was voting for his children’s future.

``If we do not vote, we will not have any reason to tell the military that they should leave power,″ he said.

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