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As crises spiral, Nigerians are voting in tight presidential election

Polling stations across Nigeria faced huge delays on Feb. 25 as voting closed in the country's most closely contested presidential race in recent history. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)
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LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerians headed to the polls Saturday in the country’s most closely contested presidential race in recent history, with a third-party candidate running neck-and-neck in opinion surveys with the candidates from Nigeria’s two main political parties.

Peter Obi, who represents the tiny Labour Party, is vying to upset two of Nigeria’s most seasoned politicians. Propelled by the frustrations of young people, who make up nearly 40 percent of the electorate, the 61-year-old former state governor with a reputation for frugality won legions of young fans on social media with his promises of reform and accountability. Official results could be days away, and analysts have warned that the race is so close to call that Nigeria could see its first runoff.

Nigerians headed to the polls on Feb. 25 in the country's most closely contested presidential race in recent history. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

As polls closed Saturday afternoon, officials said that voting had continued despite a number of problems — including violence at polling sites in Lagos, an attack in Nigeria’s north and stolen voting machines in multiple parts of the country. In one state in the oil-rich Niger Delta, violent disruptions led voting to be postponed at 141 polling units.

“We are determined that no Nigerian should and would be disenfranchised,” said Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Mahmood Yakubu in a news conference Saturday afternoon, saying that anyone who had been in line before polls closed at 2:30 p.m. would be allowed to vote. “We have been responding to some of the situations as they arise, and we are going to continue to do so over night.”

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At a polling station in Elegushi, an affluent neighborhood in Lagos where many said they supported Obi, voters said that thugs who arrived around 11 a.m. destroyed ballot boxes, threw chairs and beat up people who tried to take videos. But after the Nigerian Army arrived, people said they returned to cast their ballots, chanting “We must vote!”

“There was pain before, but my joy is that I ended up casting my vote,” said a 38-year-old businesswoman who voted for Obi. She asked to be identified only by her first name, Princess, because she was afraid of the men who she said had torn her clothes and beaten her before destroying her phone, which she’d been using to take videos.

“I am voting for my children,” said Princess, as she held her phone, its screen shattered. “Enough is enough.”

Chidi Nwagu, a 45-year-old doctor with bruises and cuts on his arms, said that he at first tried to fight back when he saw the men attacking the ballot box. More than an hour after polls were supposed to have closed, he still had not cast his ballot but said he had no plans to leave until he could do so.

In Nigeria’s election, young people seek to wield new power

Nigerians get ready to vote in a historic presidential election on Feb. 25, as the country tackles a currency crisis, soaring inflation and high poverty rates. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Analysts warn that despite the hype he has received on social media, Obi faces long odds. Among the 18 presidential candidates on the ballot, the other two top contenders are Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a 70-year-old former Lagos governor who has outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari’s backing, and Atiku Abubakar, a 76-year-old former vice president on his sixth bid for the presidency.

Both men have advantages over Obi in terms of fundraising and get-out-the-vote operations, and their respective parties control the vast majority of seats in the National Assembly.

At one polling station in Mushin, a working-class Lagos neighborhood, 35-year-old Kayode Coker said that he thinks the Obi hype is overblown. The average age at his polling station was between 50 and 70 years old. “The youths clamoring on social media? They don’t even have voter cards,” scoffed Coker, who said he voted for Tinubu.

“We need someone who understands the system,” said the accountant. “It takes a thief to catch a thief.”

Asked if the “thief” to whom he referred was Tinubu — who has denied accusations of corruption over the years — Coker threw his hands in the air: “I mean … that’s what I’m saying.”

Ahead of the election and on Election Day, residents across Lagos shared an almost universal sense of exasperation. Voters — and those who said they were too fed up to vote — said the election feels like an inflection point after years of spiraling economic and security crises that have made their lives exceedingly difficult.

Despite Nigeria’s vast oil riches, more than 60 percent of people here live in poverty. Under Buhari, the country experienced two recessions, soaring inflation, massive youth unemployment and a proliferation of kidnappings and violence.

Injecting a new uncertainty into Election Day is a nationwide shortage of cash that has further crippled Nigeria’s economy in recent weeks. The shortage, which resulted from the government’s abrupt move to remove old bank notes from circulation and issue new ones, has led to massive lines at ATMs and banks and has devastated small businesses.

Buhari last week said the policy would help lay “a strong foundation for free and fair elections” in Nigeria, which has a long history of vote-buying. But some analysts warn that the crisis could have other consequences as well, including increasing frustration with the ruling party and voter apathy.

What you need to know about Nigeria’s historic presidential election

Busayo Bamidele, a 30-year-old mother who makes a living selling trinkets and jewelry at a market on Lagos Island, said she would usually take the bus to her home state of Oyo to vote but has no money to do so this year because of the cash shortage. Since the cash shortage started a few weeks ago, she said she was barely selling anything and is no longer making enough money to feed herself or her children regularly. At stalls around her, vendor after vendor said the same.

“I had to borrow money to buy food this morning … and since then, we have not eaten anything else,” Bamidele said on a recent afternoon. “And they say we should come and vote?”

Ope Adetayo contributed to this report.