- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

AJUBA, Nigeria, April 19 (UPI) — Hundreds of thousands of police guarded poll stations across Nigeria as citizens, Muslim and Christian alike, voted Saturday for a president and state governors of their oil-rich country.

The heavy security presence was intended to signal the government's intolerance for any disturbance that could interfere with voting. Soldiers also manned major roads into Nigeria's various states, according to the Guardian, a Nigerian daily.

A final tally is not expected until at least Sunday and quite possibly later. But the incumbent Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian and Nigeria's first civilian president in 16 years, is expected to win — by fair or foul, depending on the point of view.

The United States is watching the elections closely for two reasons: a fair election will be a step toward stabilizing recent turmoil in the most populous country in Africa, and since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks the United States has increased its oil imports from Nigeria over the Middle East.

Obasanjo's ruling People's Democratic Party easily won parliamentary elections a week ago amid minor outbreaks of fighting and accusations of vote-rigging by opposition members. Election monitors so far have endorsed neither results nor complaints, choosing to await final counts, but they have expressed concerns.

"The Nigerian people are commended for making a substantial effort to participate in this election under often difficult conditions," said a report by one of the monitor groups, the U.S. International Republican Institute. Its monitors noted disorganized and poorly supplied voting stations, however, and "significant procedural irregularities were also identified at practically all stages of the voting and vote tabulation process in the states covered by IRI observers."

Both Obasanjo and his main rival, retired general Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim, are former military leaders. Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960, but the military has overthrown its government twice since then and attempted a coup at least one other time. The latest government dates to 1998 elections, when Obasanjo inherited a country wracked by a depleted social services, neglected infrastructure and a restive military. And in the predominantly Muslim north, violent conflict has erupted since the imposition of traditional and sometimes harsh Sharia law three years ago.

"I want a president who can make a positive change," Nigerian citizen Augustin Uche told the British Broadcasting Corp. in the run-up to the election. "The rate of unemployment is alarming. The cost of living is exorbitant. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. But the worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship."

Nigeria is a major supplier of crude oil to Europe and the fifth-leading source of U.S. crude imports. Its proven crude reserves, some 24 billion to 31 billion barrels, are located primarily in the Niger Delta, where ethnic and religious violence in recent months caused three major oil companies shut down some of their operations.

Production has been partially restored this month, but about 300,000 barrels per day remains off line, likely until after the election. 95 percent of Nigeria's average production of 2.1 million bpd comes through joint ventures between oil companies and the state oil company, Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.

(With reporting by UPI Energy Correspondent Hil Anderson in Los Angeles.)

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