PORT HARCOURT, NIGERIA – Nigeria’s election authorities announced the suspension of activities in volatile opposition-held Rivers State on Sunday citing violence and threats to its staff, as tensions rise in the wake of closely watched regional elections.
Counting is continuing across the country after Saturday’s elections for governors in 29 of Nigeria’s 36 states, all state assemblies and administrative councils in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. Results are expected in the coming days.
The statement from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) halting the electoral process in oil-rich Rivers came after dozens of men in military fatigues encircled a vote counting center in the state capital Port Harcourt — sparking international concern and an army denial that its soldiers were involved.
While it did not mention the incident directly, the INEC said the “safety of our staff appears to be in jeopardy all over the state and the commission is concerned about the credibility of the process.
It said reports from its teams in Rivers “suggest that violence occurred in a substantial number of polling units and collation centers, staff have been taken hostage and materials including result sheets have either been seized or destroyed by unauthorized persons.”
AFP reporters in Port Harcourt said men in military uniforms blocked roads around the building where INEC staff were counting votes, sparking a standoff with police who initially resisted with teargas but ultimately backed down.
Nigeria’s military categorically denied that the men were among its ranks, accusing “political thugs” of dressing up in army uniforms and carrying weapons to “impersonate soldiers and perpetrate various crimes in the furtherance of the activities of their political bosses.
Earlier the British High Commission in Abuja tweeted that it was “extremely concerned” about “reports of military interference in the election process in Rivers State.
Regional elections are fiercely contested in Nigeria, where governors are powerful and influential figures, controlling state finances and responsible for key areas from education to health.
In Lagos, meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) retained control of the governorship, according to results announced by a local INEC official.
The APC’s Babajide Sanwo-Olu had faced a strong challenge from the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Jimmy Agbaje for control of the commercial capital, a key prize given its sheer size and role as the main driver of the country’s economy.
Saturday was the second time in a fortnight that Nigerians have cast ballots after presidential elections in February that saw Buhari clinch a second term in office — a result disputed by the PDP.
Incidents of violence marred Saturday’s poll, with reports of abductions and killings as well as concerns over vote buying and a strong military presence.
The opposition PDP, which criticized the INEC decision in Rivers, is hoping for victory in some of the 22 states currently run by Buhari’s APC.
Adding to tensions in the southern Delta state was a court ruling barring any APC candidates from standing in the gubernatorial election because of procedural irregularities in the selection process.
Incumbent PDP Gov. Nyesom Wike, considered a favorite to be reelected, responded with fury to the electoral suspension in Rivers and urged the INEC to make sure the vote is respected “to ensure peace.”
“They have begun a war. They want to install a puppet. But no, it can’t stand … the will of the people of Rivers cannot be subverted, we are no cowards,” he said on Twitter.
Three people were killed in Rivers on Friday, according to the country’s transport minister, following clashes between APC and PDP supporters.
Violence also overshadowed the electoral process in other states, including the abduction of three INEC staff in northern Katsina state in an ambush Saturday that police said left one if its officers dead.
Most domestic and international observers said last month’s presidential vote was credible, despite well-documented problems. But tensions remain high as the PDP challenges the result in court.