ABUJA, NIGERIA—Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan won the oil-rich country’s election Monday as riots swept across the Muslim north and left buildings ablaze and people hiding in their homes, highlighting the religious and ethnic tensions still dividing Africa’s most populous nation.
The violence cut across 13 states, hundreds wounded. Heavy gunfire echoed through cities, as shouting crowds burned tires and threw stones at security forces. Many were feared dead, though federal officials declined to offer any figures for fear of further stoking tensions.
In a televised address to the nation late Monday, Jonathan called on Nigerians to “quickly move away from partisan battlegrounds and find a national common ground.”
“Nobody’s political ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” he said, hours after police said an angry mob in Katsina state engineered a prison break.
While Christians and Muslims have shared the same soil in the nation for centuries, the election result showing the Christian president’s more than 10 million vote lead over Muslim candidate Muhammadu Buhari spread accusations of rigging in a nation long accustomed to ballot box stuffing.
Jonathan took office last year only after the country’s elected Muslim president died from a lengthy illness before his term ended, and many in the north still believe the ruling party should have put up a Muslim candidate instead in this year’s election.
“The damage is immense. A lot of buildings have been torched: houses, businesses and religious centres,” said Umar Mairiga of the Nigerian Red Cross. More than 270 people had been wounded and some 15,000 had been displaced by the violence, he said.
Nigeria has a long history of violent and rigged polls since it abandoned a revolving door of military rulers and embraced democracy 12 years ago. Legislative elections earlier this month left a hotel ablaze, a politician dead and a polling station and a vote-counting centre bombed in the nation’s northeast. However, observers largely said Saturday’s presidential election appeared to be fair, with fewer cases of ballot box thefts than previous polls.
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Election chairman Attahiru Jega announced results Monday night that showed Jonathan won 22.4 million votes, compared to the 12.2 million votes of his nearest rival, the former military ruler Buhari. Jonathan also received enough votes across Nigeria’s 36 states and capital to avoid triggering a runoff.
The West African nation of 150 million people is divided between a Christian-dominated south and the Muslim north.
A dozen states across Nigeria’s north have Islamic Shariah law in place, though they remain under the control of secular state governments. Thousands have been killed in religious violence in the past decade, but the roots of the sectarian conflict are often embedded in struggles for political and economic dominance.
Buhari carried northern states where poverty remains endemic and opportunities few. Many there supported Buhari, a disciplinarian who took power after a 1983 New Year’s Eve coup, as his campaign promised change in a nation ruled by the same ruling political party since it became a democracy.
Buhari’s party brought a formal complaint against the nation’s electoral commission even before the vote count ended, alleging massive rigging in Jonathan’s homeland of the Niger Delta. The letter also alleged that the computer software used to tally results had been tampered with in northern states to favour the ruling People’s Democratic Party.
“What is being exhibited to the world is not collated from polling units but … a lot of manipulations,” the letter read.
Both Buhari’s party and the opposition party Action Congress of Nigeria refused to sign off on the results.
Violence began Sunday in the north, but took full hold Monday morning. Witnesses said youths in the northern city of Kano set fires to homes that bore Jonathan party banners. Heavy gunfire also could be heard. An Associated Press reporter there saw hundreds of youths carrying wooden planks in the street, shouting “Only Buhari” in the local Hausa language.
“What I am looking for now is rescue, the mob is still outside. I need rescue,” said Mark Asu-Obi, who was trapped inside his Kano home with his wife and three children. “There are hoodlums all over the place. It’s not just my place that they are attacking. I am not a politician. I am an independent observer.”
In Kaduna, home to the oil-rich nation’s vice-president, angry young men burned tires in the streets and threw stones at police and soldiers trying to restore order, witnesses said. Youths targeted ruling party officials in Bauchi state as well.
“All of you came out in the sun and elected the person after your heart, I thank you for doing that but let us remain peaceful in all our conducts so that we will not be plunged into a crisis situation in the state,” Bauchi state Gov. Isa Yuguda said in a statewide radio and television broadcast.
The violence did not affect Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta, where foreign companies pump more than 2 million barrels of crude a day out of a country crucial to U.S. gasoline supplies. A statement attributed to former militant leaders there warned they would defend Jonathan’s mandate “with the last drop of our blood.” The statement said leaders also ordered fighters to return to the delta’s winding muddy creeks to await instructions.
Jonathan came to power after the May 2010 death of Nigeria’s long-ill elected leader, President Umaru Yar’Adua. Still, many in Nigeria’s Muslim north remain uneasy about Jonathan, a Christian from the country’s south. The north’s elite political class wanted the ruling party to honour an unwritten power-sharing agreement that would have placed another northern candidate into the presidency. However, Jonathan ultimately prevailed in a ruling party primary.