- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 26, 2011

IKOT EFUM, Nigeria | Gunmen fired Kalashnikov rifles in the air and others brandished machetes while storming a polling place here Tuesday, as voters in Africa’s most populous nation struggled to cast ballots after the presidential election sparked riots killing at least 500 people last week.

The attackers made off with the yet-to-be-voted ballots, the ballot box and the youth volunteer in charge of this village’s election in Akwa Ibom state, witnesses told The Associated Press.

While international observers applauded Nigeria’s legislative and presidential elections held earlier this month, the violence that has erupted in the aftermath has threatened the stability of this major U.S. oil-supplying nation in West Africa.

Problems had begun even before polls opened Tuesday for gubernatorial elections in about two-thirds of Nigerian states. Two elections in the states hardest hit by the postelection violence that left charred corpses along the highways are due to be held Thursday.

About 700 members of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, who were supposed to run polling stations, already had been evacuated from states in the country’s Muslim north hit by violence last week, said Yushau Shuaib, a spokesman for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency.

“I just left,” said a 25-year-old woman who had been serving in the northern state of Gombe as a poll worker. “Very few corps members are left in the state because we were not safe.”

The one-year service program is mandatory for Nigerian university graduates younger than 30. Rules prohibit them from speaking to journalists.

Rioting broke out across the north when election results showed President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the south, had won. Many in the predominantly Muslim north believe someone from their region should be in power because the elected Muslim president died last year before he could finish his term.

Tuesday’s gubernatorial races also carry tremendous importance because governors represent the closest embodiment of power many ever see in a nation of 150 million people. The positions provide many politicians with personal fiefdoms where oil money sluices into unwatched state coffers that exceed those of neighboring nations.

“They have the final power in the state,” said Pastor Regina Udofia, 37, who voted in Akwa Ibom’s capital city Uyo. “Their signature is final.”

The thirst for that power has encouraged violence and election rigging before in Nigeria, which has held marred elections since becoming a democracy 12 years ago. That remains the case in Akwa Ibom state, home to many oil fields operated by the Nigerian subsidiary of U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp., which has seen rioters burn cars and torch a Jonathan campaign office in recent weeks.

Just outside Uyo in Ikot Efum, voters stood by listlessly Tuesday after the gunmen stole the ballots. The two police officers assigned to protect the polling center carried no weapons of their own and merely sat down after the attack.

Down the road, a station wagon sat engulfed in flames. Witnesses said local gang members torched the car after someone tried to alert authorities.

Officials have postponed the governors’ races in the two northern areas hardest hit by violence that erupted after the presidential election — Kaduna and Bauchi states — until Thursday. But that might be enough time for the thousands who fled those areas to return home and vote.

An estimated 40,000 people left amid postelection violence and retaliatory attacks following the April 16 presidential election, and it’s not clear how many have returned.

In Nigeria’s northeast, an explosion at a hotel killed three people and wounded 14 others in the city of Maiduguri on Sunday, police said. While no one claimed responsibility for that attack, a radical Muslim sect recently vowed to keep fighting there. Another blast went off early Tuesday in the city but no casualties were reported. Still, turnout in some areas dropped by more than 50 percent compared to the elections held earlier this month.

Tensions also remained high in Plateau state, where hundreds have been killed in recent religious violence. On Tuesday, dozens of young men pushed and shoved at a polling station where the visiting election official did not speak the local Hausa language.

“You see, in this country, democracy is premature,” said Abdullah Fanap, 68, who voted in the village of Yelwa. “Here in the north, we have a long way to go.”

Associated Press writers Krista Larson and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria; Maggie Fick in Yelwa, Nigeria and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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