After 12 hours of waiting to vote, sweltering under the hot sun without food or rest, the voters of Mararaba were angry and frustrated. The queues were sweaty and overcrowded. Hundreds of voters were packed into a small space, and the lineups were not moving.
Most of the voters in this migrant neighborhood were supporters of opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, and they smelled a conspiracy. They were convinced that the government was making it difficult for them to vote because they were opponents of President Goodluck Jonathan.
In truth, the delays seemed to be due mostly to technical glitches, malfunctioning voter-card scanners and shortages of ballot papers. The election commission seemed to have underestimated the size of the local population. It was just one example of the obstacles that Nigeria's tenacious voters had to overcome in Africa's biggest election.
By 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, the voting in one Mararaba voting station still had not begun. The queues swayed back and forth as voters clung to each other and jostled for position in the crowded roadside polling station.
“Even if we have to sleep here, we’re going to stay and vote,” said 33-year-old Mohammed Jakusko, a civil servant, as he struggled to keep his place in the queue. “We need change in Nigeria, definitely. This country is not organized, as you can see. It’s only Buhari who can change this country.”
But as they continued waiting, the voting results were already being announced in other parts of Nigeria where the balloting had been conducted more smoothly.
A few minutes later, the tensions boiled over. The voters spotted an election official carrying a box of blank ballots to a car. They became convinced that he was manipulating the ballots in favor of the ruling party. A mob descended on the election official, grabbed the box, tore the ballots and scattered them across the road. (The official later denied that he was doing anything illegal.)
The mob of enraged voters became so unruly that a unit of Nigerian soldiers moved in to restore order, firing shots in the air. The soldiers found the controversial election official and removed him from the voting station – partly to question him, but partly just to protect him from the angry crowd. The crowd cheered loudly as the soldiers marched him away, with his ballot box.
The soldiers and police eventually managed to push back the crowd and impose order. They were assisted by a unit of State Security agents, the Nigerian secret police, who arrived in a black vehicle. The secret agents, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, wore black uniforms and hid their faces under black ski masks – a bizarre sight in the hot sun.
By about 7 p.m. the voting had finally begun, and the crowd had become a little quieter.
Many of Nigeria’s voting stations were able to operate more smoothly than this. But long queues and delays of several hours were routine at most stations. Voting in Nigeria is a full-day obligation: a total commitment to democracy.