- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo easily led his main challenger in early returns yesterday from presidential elections marred by scattered violence and accusations of fraud.
With more than 14 million votes counted in 21 of Nigeria's 36 states and the federal capital territory, Mr. Obasanjo had 69 percent of the votes compared with 26 percent for Muhammadu Buhari, a former ally.
Opposition leaders accused the government of rigging the ballot and threatened mass protests.
"This is a massive rigging. The masses are going to react. They will fight," said Francis Erube, an official in Mr. Buhari's party. "Obasanjo's people want to mess up this country, but the people not going to allow them to do that."
Nigeria has never had a successful transition from one civilian government to another. The West African country, the continent's most populous, is one of the world's largest oil exporters but is desperately poor and has a history of coups and unrest.
Nineteen candidates including three former generals are challenging Mr. Obasanjo, a former military leader-turned-statesman whose election four years ago brought 15 years of brutal military rule to an end. Mr. Buhari, his main rival, is a former junta leader and former ally whose relationship with Mr. Obasanjo began souring after his election.
Election observers said they were concerned about the possibility of fraud during the count.
"The trouble is not the voting process, which has been peaceful," said Festus Okoye, leader of the Transitional Monitoring Group, which has 10,000 election observers. "It is the counting of votes that concerns us."
During voting Saturday, soldiers opened fire at a polling booth in the oil-producing Niger Delta, killing six persons.
The mood was tense yesterday in the Niger Delta oil port of Warri, where police and soldiers in armored vehicles and pickup trucks fired automatic weapons in the air to disperse thousands of raucous youths who said their opposition candidate for state governor was leading in the vote.
"We are happy because we are winning," said a celebrant named Ogene, punching the air and drinking from a whiskey bottle.
Fearing violent protests, soldiers and police also patrolled the streets of the northern cities of Kaduna and Jos. But in the northern city of Kano, Buhari supporters celebrated in the streets after receiving news that one of his party's candidates was leading the race for governor.
In many parts of the southern Niger Delta, a boycott by ethnic Ijaw militants and charges of fraud prevented voting from taking place. Journalists and observers witnessed numerous cases of apparent corruption, including ballot-box theft and bribery. Ijaws were angry about the government's refusal to change electoral boundaries that they say favor the rival Itsekiris.
Nigeria's election commission promised to cancel results in areas with proven cases of fraud.
"Where there is substantial violence and boxes disappear, the results will not be accepted," said Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, commission secretary, who declared the ballot a "vast improvement" over previous elections.
Nearly half of Nigeria's 126 million people registered for the ballot. It was not clear how many voted, though officials said turnout was high.
Mr. Obasanjo's rule has brought some improvement in individual and press freedoms. But outbreaks of political, religious and ethnic violence have killed more than 10,000 people since 1999, including hundreds of civilians massacred by government troops.

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