Ruling party candidate Bola Tinubu was leading the race for the Nigerian presidency, in an election that has been plagued by accusations of irregularities and vote tampering, with angry calls from the opposition camps for the contest to be cancelled and rerun.

Preliminary results on Tuesday, based on data from more than two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states, showed that Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress had won 7mn votes, and that the main opposition candidate — Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party — had close to 6mn. Peter Obi, the Labour party contender whose youth-focused campaign turned the usual two-party race into a competitive three-man battle, won the support of 3.8mn voters.

The tally puts Tinubu, 70, on course to replace departing president Muhammadu Buhari, also from the APC, as leader of Africa’s most populous country. But this weekend’s exercise in democracy has been heavily criticised by Nigerian’s opposition parties, civil society groups, international observers and former presidents.

Much of the anger has been directed at the Independent National Electoral Commission, the body that oversaw the vote and was responsible for collecting results from almost 177,000 polling stations across the country.

Long delays in collecting the results, which were meant to be uploaded almost immediately to the INEC’s online portal, have stoked concerns that the gap left ample space for vote tampering.

At a press conference in the capital Abuja, opposition parties decried the “monumental disparities” between what they said were the actual voters cast and those announced. They accused the INEC of failing to follow its promise in the lead-up to the vote to upload the results in real time, which was meant to bring transparency to the opaque election process.

“The election was not free and far from being fair or transparent,” said Labour party chair Julius Abure, as he called for the whole vote to be cancelled and restaged. He said the INEC had been “irretrievably compromised” and demanded the resignation of its chair Mahmood Yakubu.

Obi took victory in Lagos state in an surprise result that underlined his appeal to young, educated and middle-class voters living in urban areas and in southern states. But if the results are genuine, they suggest he has not been unable to extend this popularity to the populous north where the leading parties struck deals with regional power brokers.

Electoral officers collate election results at the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC)
Electoral officers collate election results at the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) © Akintunde Akinleye/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The INEC denied any malfeasance, but it has apologised for delays in the election results being available. It blamed difficulties in the implementation of new technology that had been trialled only in smaller-scale elections.

Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development think-tank, said the INEC had a duty to “ensure there’s clarity in how it will address the litany of complaints and that it’s prepared to correct the missteps” ahead of the governorship and state legislature votes on March 11.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who was Nigeria’s military leader in the 70s and returned as elected head of state between 1999-2007, weighed in to say it was “no secret that INEC officials . . . have been allegedly compromised to make what should have worked not to work”, so as to revert to the manual transmission of results so they could then be manipulated and doctored.

He slammed the “greed, irresponsibility and unpatriotic act of those who allegedly gave money to INEC officials for perversion and those who collected the blood money,” and called for some of the votes to be rerun.

There was further condemnation from international observers, with a joint observer mission by the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute saying voting issues “undermined citizen confidence at a crucial moment in the [election] process”. The US-based organisations said that poor communication and a lack of transparency by the INEC had “created confusion and eroded voters’ trust in the process.”

The election was marred by violence in pockets of the country, particularly in Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital, where armed men stole ballot boxes from polling centres and people reported being threatened to vote a certain way. Election results were also cancelled in parliamentary races in a number of states, contributing to a sense of uncertainty around the validity of the process.

In oil-rich Rivers state, one of those with the highest number of eligible voters, election collation efforts were suspended after the official in charge alleged his life had been threatened.

Mucahid Durmaz, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk intelligence company, said the concerns over the vote were so widespread that it could damage perceptions of Nigeria’s democracy.

“The attacks on polling stations and voter repression endanger the credibility of the election,” he said. “The inability of the electoral commission to manage the voting process, and acute logistical and security issues have hampered efforts to conduct a credible vote.”

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