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Africa

Allegations of voter intimidation in Rivers state as Nigeria votes in local elections

media A Nigerian voter has his finger scanned for the gubernatorial and state … Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

Nigerian voters go to polls on Saturday to elect state governors and local assemblies, weeks after the All Progressives Congress (APC) party scored the first ever opposition win in the presidential polls. However, in Rivers state, a key battleground between the APC and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), there were accusations of voter intimidation and violence.

“Armed militiamen are going around intimidating voters and again we have a situation where security’s been compromised,” Ibim Semenitari, the state’s commissioner for information, told RFI.

Rivers state, in the oil-producing southern delta region, is under APC control and the contest between outgoing governor Rotimi Amaechi and outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan’s wife Patience, who is from Rivers state, is seen as an important test of the APC’s momentum following their success in the presidential election.

“What we’re worried about is the complicity of security agents and INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) officials with PDP and militia people,” says Semenitari. She points the finger at Patience Jonathan, who she says has been meeting with officials in the state capital Port Harcourt.

Semenitari, who represents the APC, lists towns such as Abonnema and Okrika where she says there has been gunfire through the night and “armed thugs” who are “terrorising voters”.

Oluwole Osaze-Uzzi, director of voter education and publicity at INEC, told RFI that the situation across the country as a whole was “fairly good” although there were “reported threats of violence” in a few places.

“We have heard some reports of gunshots and as a result some of our [electoral] officials have had to leave the field for safety,” says Osaze-Uzzi of Rivers state, which collects big revenues from the oil and gas sector that is based there.

Osaze-Uzzi is cautious not to put the blame squarely on the PDP and questions whether the APC allegations can be backed up by evidence. He goes on to say that they have also heard claims to the contrary: that the APC has been responsible for some intimidation of electoral officials and voters.

“It’s for the security forces to restore order and to investigate and confirm one way or the other the source of this intimidation,” Osaze-Uzzi says in a telephone interview from Abuja.

Furthermore, the INEC official says the results in Rivers state will only be called into question based upon a determination of how widespread the violence and intimidation of voters is.

Analysts see Saturday’s elections as another test of the Nigerian electorate’s desire for change following years of PDP rule.

Songhai Advisory, a political risk consultancy firm, questions whether the mood from the presidential elections will prevail at a local level.

The PDP will be intent on recovering from its 28 March defeat, Songhai said in a research note on Friday, though pointing out that a series of defections by high-profile figures to the opposition could still make it difficult for a party that had been at the helm of Nigerian politics since 1999.

Alex Thurston, a Nigeria analyst from Georgetown University, writes that “many of Nigeria’s governors are term-limited, so the races in many states are open and will produce new officeholders”.

Lagos and Rivers are key states to watch, Thurston says. Lagos because it is a stronghold of the APC and Rivers due to the “contest of wills and resources” between outgoing APC governor Amaechi and Patience Jonathan.

Some 760 candidates are running for 29 governor and deputy governor positions. The PDP currently has 21 governors while the APC has 14.

More than 68 million registered voters will be eligible to vote on Saturday afternoon once they have had their credentials verified.

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