Nigeria Vote Preceded By Suspected Bomb Blast

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IBADAN, Nigeria — A bomb targeting an election office in Nigeria exploded Friday on the eve of the first of the oil-rich country's three crucial April elections, killing at least eight people and spreading fears that violence reminiscent of the nation's flawed 2007 vote could spread.

The explosion struck the Independent National Electoral Commission office in Suleja in the afternoon as workers hurriedly prepared for Saturday's looming National Assembly polls. A government official who requested anonymity said the blast injured so many people that local hospitals quickly became overwhelmed, forcing doctors to send patients onto nearby Abuja, the country's capital.

The official requested anonymity due to government concerns about talking about the death toll ahead of the election.

Police did not immediately identify the explosive used or say whether they had any suspects. Suleja, in Niger state, previously saw a bombing at a political rally in March that killed at least four people and left another 20 wounded.

A statement from President Goodluck Jonathan's office promised the nation it would increase security ahead of Saturday's vote.

"The president's deepest sympathies go the families of these patriotic youth and he wishes to assure them that the federal government will do everything possible to bring their murderers to justice," the statement read.

Nigeria's delayed first national election starts Saturday, and the bombing is just one of a series of worrying signs recently seen across Africa's most populous nation. Coupled with a failed bombing in the north and an attack by a radical Islamic sect Friday, these signs undoubtedly prove worrying for international observers concerned about one of the top crude oil suppliers to the U.S., as well as those who will place their inked fingers to the ballots.

"Millions of voters may be disenfranchised by being too scared to go out to cast their votes," recently wrote Kunle Amuwo, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Nigeria, home to 150 million people, will vote Saturday on who should represent its citizens in its National Assembly. The positions remain highly lucrative, with more than $1 million in salaries and benefits, plus the ability to direct a swollen budget in a nation where billions in oil revenues routinely go missing.

The election was to be held last Saturday, but national election chairman Attahiru Jega stopped it after ballot papers and tally sheets went missing in many of the country's roughly 120,000 polling stations. Jega twice postponed the election and about 15 percent of the races won't be held Saturday as misprinted ballots delayed them.

Nigeria's crucial presidential election, as well as local elections, will take place later this month.

Many hoped Jega, a respected academic, would be able to lead Nigeria out of its dark history of flawed polls marred by violence and ballot-box stuffing since it became a democracy in 1999. However, even he appears now to be overwhelmed by the logistical challenge of conducting elections in a nation twice the size of California that lacks reliable roads and railways.

"One man alone cannot overcome significant systemic and logistical challenges, nor can one person or one electoral event transform a political culture in which stolen elections and disregard for basic democratic principles have been the norm for decades," Johnnie Carson, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, said in a speech Tuesday.

Outside of Jega's influence, politicians maintain murky ties with local gangs and militants from the nation's oil-rich southern delta to its arid north. Human Rights Watch estimates at least 85 people have died in recent months in political violence.

In some areas, election problems appear to have already begun. In Borno state, police say gunmen from a radical Islamic sect known locally as Boko Haram shot and killed four people at a police station in Shani, including a local official of the country's ruling People's Democratic Party. The attack comes after suspected sect members wounded two officers guarding a church Thursday in Maiduguri. The sect already has killed a leading gubernatorial candidate in the state and appears to attack at will despite a security crackdown.

In Kaduna state, officials say a man carrying a bomb died when the explosive detonated Friday, wounding another man. Authorities found two other explosives in the dead man's home, though they immediately didn't have a motive for the bomb manufacturing.

Security has been a top concern in the country ahead of the vote. As a security precaution, officials closed Nigeria's land borders Friday. In Ibadan, a city in southwest Nigeria where fighting remains common, police roared down streets in armored tanks with screaming sirens. One military vehicle appeared to ferry election materials to distribution centers.

During Nigeria's failed 2007 election, Ibadan and surrounding Oyo state saw everything from fake police officers stuffing ballot boxes to political operatives pushing the fingers of the confused elderly to vote for their party, according to a European Union report on the polls. Violence followed.

Oyo state police spokesman Olatunji Ajimuda told The Associated Press on Friday that such violence wasn't likely, as security agencies would patrol the streets and enforce a nationwide curfew. However, he acknowledged the power the nation's wealthy elite and politicians wield.

"Politics is a game," Ajimuda said. "We just hope the politicians play it that way."


Associated Press writers Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria; Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria; Muawiya Garba Funtua in Katsina, Nigeria; Salisu Rabiu in Kano, Nigeria and Njadvara Musa in Maiduguri, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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