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Nigerians head to polls on a competitive election day

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nigerians have been voting today in what many see as the most competitive election in decades. And in Africa's most populous country, many voters say they're heading to the polls with a sense of urgency to set the country on a better path after eight tough years. But voting in some parts of Nigeria has not been smooth, and many people have had to brave long lines and even threats in order to cast their ballots. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu visited a polling station in Lagos. And we want to warn listeners - you're going to hear gunshots in this piece.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Polls are just opening in Nigeria. It's just gone 9:00 in the morning. I'm at a usually gridlocked, busy road that has given way to football games, pedestrians, cyclists. Movement's restricted in Nigeria on Election Day except for party agents and security, so it makes the day actually quite preciously serene and peaceful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AKINWOTU: One of the boys playing football - or soccer - whispered to me that he's voting for the APC when the game is over because he feels his candidate has the best track record. I've been talking to people, a lot of young people, some of whom are voting for the very first time.

GLORIA: My name is Gloria Umot (ph). For this election, I want to comment, I was about saying that, OK, I'm not going to come. I said, no, I must come. I must come and come and vote them out. That's why I am here today. And my vote is going to count by the special grace of God because this whole thing is too much, extremely too much. We cannot enjoy it any longer. You go to the market. Things are expensive. You cannot buy any things. I have a shop. What I used to buy before in my shop is times five of when I go to the shop. So I'm tired. That's why I had to come out to vote.

AKINWOTU: I've been talking to polling agents for the different parties. They said that the atmosphere here in a more affluent part of Lagos, in Ikoyi, is calmer, and they also feel a sense of confidence in the electoral process, and they feel that the vote will reflect what people actually have chosen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Patience, patience, please.

AKINWOTU: So we're at a polling unit in Akinyele in Surulere. A truckload of police just arrived, reinforcing the security that are here. People are spilling over with frustration here. They've been waiting for hours and hours. Some people arrived here at 7 a.m. It's now 2 in the afternoon, and they haven't been able to cast their ballot.

AMEKE: My name is Ameke. I'm a medical lab scientist. For a long period of time, majority of Nigerians have been suffering. (Inaudible) - that's probably we are elected or not. But now we want to cause the change that we want. So we are here to just exercise that right. It's our right to vote and be voted for.

AKINWOTU: Ameke eventually got to the front of the queue and was just about to cast her vote when gunmen suddenly arrived...

(SOUND OF GUNFIRE)

AKINWOTU: ...And scattered everything.

(SOUND OF GUNFIRE)

AKINWOTU: We've just kind of gathered ourselves. We had to run. Some boys came with guns. They started shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Enough is enough in this country. Enough is enough. Where are the soldiers? Where are the young guys? Where are the soldiers?

AKINWOTU: We've just had to run from gunshots.

AMEKE: Yes.

AKINWOTU: You've been waiting to vote since 8 in the morning.

AMEKE: I know. They've been - I think they're taking all of the ballot boxes. So I know that I just have to go. I can't stay here again. Where are the security? This has never happened. I'm surprised.

AKINWOTU: The ballot box was taken in the attack, and election material was damaged. It wasn't exactly clear who the gunmen were, but it was clear they wanted to disrupt the vote - and at this polling station. But even as I left, some people dusted themselves off and told me they were waiting to see if voting would restart, still determined to cast their vote. Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.