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Soldiers of the Nigerian army, right, and a policeman, left, stand guard as electoral officials count ballot papers after the National Assembly election in Ibadan, Nigeria, April 9, 2011. (Sunday Alamba/AP/Sunday Alamba/AP)
Soldiers of the Nigerian army, right, and a policeman, left, stand guard as electoral officials count ballot papers after the National Assembly election in Ibadan, Nigeria, April 9, 2011. (Sunday Alamba/AP/Sunday Alamba/AP)

Security ensures clean election in Nigeria Add to ...

All over Nigeria's biggest city, under trees and makeshift shelters in slums and middle-class neighbourhoods, intense little crowds of voters were huddled around the election officers, making sure that every vote was counted properly.

The result was far from perfect, marred by violence in a few regions, but observers are calling it the cleanest election in Nigeria's recent history, marking a dramatic step forward for African democracy. Under strict new rules and a high-tech system of voter registration, Nigerians managed to deal a heavy blow to the corrupt politicians who have rigged their elections for most of the past decade.

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The voters also dealt a blow to the ruling party, the People's Democratic Party, which has controlled Nigeria since the end of military dictatorship in 1999. Early results suggest that the PDP lost many seats in the national parliament, though it will remain the biggest party. Several big-name PDP candidates were defeated by opposition candidates.

"People are starting to wake up and realize the power they have," said Aramide Ogbonna, a banker who was queuing up to vote in Saturday's parliamentary election.

"We're tired of the poverty, corruption, unemployment and bad leadership," she said. "This country has so much potential. People want change, and they're voting for change."

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and a crucial battleground for democracy in the continent, is holding two more elections this month to choose its president next week and its state governors after that. The elections were postponed twice by problems in printing and distributing ballots to the 120,000 voting stations across this sprawling nation of 150 million people.

One team of observers, monitoring the elections in more than 740 regions, found that 96 per cent of the polling stations were able to prevent anyone from voting without an official voter's card, and 95 per cent were able to ensure that voters marked their ballots in secret.

"While the election was not perfect, it provided a meaningful opportunity for Nigerians to exercise their right to vote," said the observers from Project 2011 Swift Count, a coalition of civil-society groups. "Despite the bombings and the delays in the elections, Nigerians who went to the polls did so enthusiastically."

The observers warned, however, that the election commission must still improve its procedures so that the polling officials and voting materials arrive on time. "We were fortunate that incidents of violence and electoral malfeasance were not widespread and did not spiral out of control."

A dozen people were killed Friday in a bomb blast at the election commission office in Suleja, about 20 kilometres from the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Several more were killed on Saturday in the bombing of a polling station in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, and a gunman killed a politician in Borno state on Saturday.

But those were isolated incidents. Nigerian elections in the past were always violent, with corrupt politicians using gangs of thugs to intimidate voters and snatch ballot boxes, and those incidents were sharply diminished this time.

Security was tight at most voting stations, with police and army troops watching for any irregularities. At one polling station in Lagos, voters demanded action when they saw a motorcyclist lingering near the voting booth. Armed police were swiftly dispatched and chased away the biker.

In most regions, the election was far more orderly and honest than the last election in 2007, condemned by European Union observers as among the worst they had ever seen.

If anything, the rules were perhaps too strict this time. Thousands of voters in Lagos were effectively disenfranchised because they had registered at voting stations near their workplaces - and it was impossible for them to reach those voting stations on Saturday because of a ban on car traffic, designed to prevent anyone from illegally casting multiple ballots.

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