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Problems line up for Nigerian election

By Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Fault lines exposed in Nigerian vote
  • Re-run election in Nigeria's Delta state plagued by problems
  • One observer group says widespread irregularities took place
  • Chaotic election could be indicator of things to come with a national election scheduled for April
  • Head of election commission says things will be better in April when 150 million people vote

Delta state, Nigeria (CNN) -- No voting equipment, no election officials, no security and an election chairman indicating events are out of his control.

"No one is voting because in many areas people are taking the law in to their own hands. Many of our officials have been attacked, many of our voting materials have been diverted in many of these places you are talking about so it cannot be our fault," said Attahiru Jega, Chairman of Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission, or INEC.

It is a disturbing admission about a small state election re-run in Nigeria's southern Delta state, but it could also be an indicator of problems ahead for the upcoming national election.

If Jega can't control elections in this one small state, then it could have serious consequences for promises of free and fair national elections across 36 states in April.

A crowd of voters gathered at one voting place soon became angry as they realized they were being denied their right to vote. "No ballot box! No ballot box!" they yelled. "We want to vote! We want to vote!" they chanted.

There was no polling booth, no election officials, no security and no explanation.

Earlier that morning, minibuses left the local distribution center under military guard carrying voting materials. It was the last we saw of it.

"We thought this election was going to be a very good one and hence we came," shouted one man from the crowd. "No accreditation, no voting, nobody."

Just a few hundred meters from where he was standing stood the local offices for the local government, police station and INEC.

Less than a kilometer down the road was the distribution center from where voting materials were transported.

Despite promises for more than 20,000 security officers to be drafted into the state, the curfew was openly flaunted by what were mostly young men criss-crossing Ughelli town in cars and on motorbikes.

At one street corner another crowd searched vainly through a voter accreditation list with some names cut out.

There was no voting equipment, voting officials or security here either.

As we searched for at least one operational polling station, a military helicopter circled overhead. The chairman of INEC had come to make a surprise inspection.

Jega, a widely respected man in Nigeria, was brought in to give some credibility to INEC -- a commission widely disparaged for overseeing what is considered Nigeria's most corrupt elections in 2007. The Delta's 2007 state election was annulled because of fraud and violence.

Jega's most ambitious program is a new, national voter registration plan to be done in February. But as he acknowledged, without voting equipment, voter registration is of little use.

We asked him if he could give a guarantee that these problems will not happen in April's nationwide election.

"I cannot give absolute guarantees," he explained. "But I know that the problems will be remarkably reduced such that we can't have this kind of rowdiness."

He added: "These problems you are seeing are associated with the old voters register - but we have to use it because we have been ordered by the courts to do the election with it, so by April we will have done our own voters register and things will be remarkably better."

In other areas of Delta state, voting did take place peacefully. But, say observers, just because people voted, it doesn't mean they were counted. "The processes were riddled with a lot of irregularities and fraud," said Patrick Naagbanton, coordinator for the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development. Throughout the day, he and colleagues had criss-crossed the state as observers.

"The same mistake we made in 1999, 2003, 2007 is the same mistake we have done in this election and this is a litmus test for the credibility of INEC. And they have failed."

Nigeria now only has three months left to organize elections for 150 million people across its 36 states.