A watershed presidential election in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, unfolded peacefully on Saturday, a first for a country with a history of rigged and violent votes in the 12 years since the end of military rule.
Nigerians have never voted before in such favorable conditions, analysts and election monitors said: ballot materials appear to have arrived on time, there were few reports of violence and the registration process before the voting appeared to have gone smoothly.
The implications of the clean vote, for a new democracy still struggling to establish itself after years of dictatorship, are big. Analysts noted that the winner would most likely have a legitimacy denied to his predecessors elected under murky circumstances, including ballot stealing, a fraudulent polling list and the violent intimidation of voters, all features of the last presidential election, the widely denounced 2007 vote.
None of those flaws appeared to be a significant part of the electoral landscape on Saturday. “It appears to be going quite smoothly,” said the leader of the National Democratic Institute’s observer mission, Joe Clark, a former Canadian prime minister, speaking from the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
“It’s gone in a quite orderly fashion,” he said, as large numbers of voters waited patiently. “Their numbers were called, and they queued up.”
Compared with earlier years, relatively few people, about 39, were killed in pre-election violence, according to the Election Situation Room, a Nigerian civil society group.
There have been several bomb blasts as well, notably in the north, home to a militant Islamic sect. But the systematic manipulation that plagued previous elections appeared to be absent, experts said.
On Saturday, electoral officials were using an uncomplicated procedure for cutting down on fraud, Mr. Clark said. They were asking voters to remain near the polling places. “Their simple presence is supposed to deter what happened before,” he said. “The reason they are staying is to protect their vote.”
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Their watchful eyes are credited with deterring fraud and their numbers are seen as preventing intimidation of voters and poll workers.
In addition, the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, is considered a credible candidate who is almost certain to be the eventual winner, although he could face a runoff. He has repeatedly called on his supporters to refrain from intimidation and acts of violence.
Further, Mr. Jonathan’s main opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, said Saturday that he would not contest the results of the vote.
Nigeria, which is America’s fourth-biggest supplier of crude oil, Africa’s most populous country and home to major investments by American energy companies, is considered by the United States to be “one of the two most important countries in sub-Saharan Africa,” Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said in a conference call with reporters from Nigeria and elsewhere last month. The other major country usually cited is South Africa.
This year’s election was being closely watched by American officials because, despite shaking off military rule in 1999, Nigeria has maintained an ambiguous, less-than-democratic status, undermined by large-scale corruption, fraud and an elections agency that appeared to increase rather than combat those flaws.
Even more than the outcome, with Mr. Jonathan’s victory largely assumed, the process has been under scrutiny. Already, with Mr. Jonathan’s appointment of a respected political scientist, Attahiru Jega, last year to run the Independent National Electoral Commission, a will to reform appeared evident.
Mr. Jega has received high marks for the expeditious cleaning of a voter list that included thousands of illegitimate names — of dead people and celebrities — using a computer registration system deployed at thousands of polling places in the vast country of 150 million, and taking electronic fingerprints of every voter.
Already, before Saturday’s vote, the parliamentary elections last week were “peaceful and credible in most parts of the country,” said Peter Lewis, a Nigeria expert at Johns Hopkins University. “This is the first poll they’ve had under a civilian administration where they’ve had a reasonable degree of organization,” Mr. Lewis said.
Nigerian analysts concurred. “At this stage we’re satisfied so far,” said Clement Nwankwo, the executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja. “For a lot of Nigerians it was really a relief to see the elections go as peacefully as they did last Saturday.”
Mr. Jonathan, a 53-year-old former university zoologist who was the vice president, inherited the presidency a year ago when the incumbent, Umaru Yar’Adua, died. But Mr. Jonathan’s candidacy is not without handicaps — he is mild-mannered, and as a Christian from the south is resented by many in the Muslim north as an interloper in an accepted tradition according to which northerners and southerners alternate in holding the presidency.
Mr. Jonathan’s party lost ground in the parliamentary elections last week, and the speaker of the House was defeated. The party seems certain to have a diminished majority, and it may even be forced into a coalition, when all the results are tallied.
But he is also the candidate of the dominant People’s Democratic Party, which has an organization in every corner of Nigeria, which is the size of California, Nevada and Arizona, and has won every presidential election since the return to civilian rule in 1999.
He has promised to overhaul the country’s feeble electric system, which produces less power than the output of a midsize American city. Blackouts are frequent all over the country.
His appointment of Mr. Jega has been seen as a plus, and as a southerner he has brought provisional calm — and a return to the production of oil — to restive south Nigeria, which was for years gripped by a militant insurgency that used the region’s neglect by Abuja as an excuse to blow up pipelines and kidnap foreign oil workers. Mr. Jonathan, a native of the oil-producing region, has made the region a prime focus in his brief tenure. Government corruption, however, remains endemic.
Mr. Buhari, 69, his main challenger, is a former military dictator, a Muslim from the north and a popular figure in that region. Mr. Buhari’s brief reign from 1983 to 1985 — he was himself overthrown in a military coup — was marked by an anticorruption campaign and the execution of drug traffickers. Defeated in two previous attempts, his main appeal is his stance against corruption. But his rule included severe repression of civil liberties, and that has not been forgotten.