KATSINA, Nigeria — The body of late President Umaru Yar'Adua is in an unmarked grave in this northern city, buried in the sandy soil along with many voters' hopes here that the country's ruling party would have chosen a Muslim candidate to run in Saturday's election.
Nearly a year after Yar'Adua's death, northerners still feel it should be one of their own leading Africa's most populous nation – not the Christian southerner who inherited the job and is now seeking his own term. While President Goodluck Jonathan remains the clear front-runner, the north's unease could force a potentially volatile runoff vote.
"People are still feeling the death of (Yar'Adua) as he was a son of the soil," said Lawal Dogo, a cleric who ministers at the grave site.
In order to win, Jonathan must receive a minimum level of support from across this enormous country of 150 million – a complicated formula somewhat similar to the American electoral college system. He cannot win the presidency outright unless he carries at least a quarter of the votes cast in at least two-thirds of states and the capital.
And among those looking to siphon away key votes in northern Muslim constituencies is a hometown candidate – former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. He ruled Nigeria shortly after a 1983 New Year's Eve coup, executing drug dealers and going after corrupt officials while also stifling freedom of speech and jailing journalists.
Nigeria is a mixture of ethnic groups and languages across a country twice the size of California that is a regional economic powerhouse. It's also a crucial supplier of crude oil to the United States, and hosts many Western oil companies and workers.
It largely splits though between a Muslim north that nears the Sahara Desert and a Christian south of forests and swampland. And despite a call for unity after civil war that ended in 1970 with more than 1 million people dead, tribal and regional differences still divide the nation.
The country has only had one civilian-to-civilian handover of the presidency since independence more than 50 years ago, and Nigeria's polls have been troubled ever since the country became a democracy in 1999. International observers roundly rejected Nigeria's 2007 poll as being rigged and marred by thuggery.
Both Jonathan and the leader of the country's Independent National Electoral Commission have promised a free and fair vote Saturday. However, election workers have clamored for life insurance and police protection.
During legislative elections last weekend, violence erupted in northeast Nigeria, where a radical Islamic sect operates, leaving a hotel ablaze, a politician dead and a polling station and a vote-counting center bombed.
Ahead of the presidential vote, Nigerian authorities shut the country's land borders Thursday and security agencies planned to enforce a nationwide 10 p.m. curfew Friday night.
Between Buhari and a southwest opposition party also fielding a candidate, the competition could pull enough votes away from Jonathan to force the first presidential runoff election in the country's history.
In Katsina, where children beg in dusty streets with plastic bowls, many view Buhari as incorruptible. It's a desirable trait in a nation where billions of dollars of oil revenue routinely get spent with no accountability.
"The time has come for Nigeria to have a strong leader," said Sani Shitu, a 50-year-old trader in Katsina. "The time for change has come."
Posters for the former military ruler can be found throughout the north, including one showing him in boxing gloves. The headline reads: "One punch, seven die." And there are signs of growing support: A political party set up for Buhari's presidential ambition carried nearly all the legislative elections in Katsina – even defeating Yar'Adua's daughter.
Analysts say the runoff scenario remains possible in Nigeria, if the ruling party doesn't use the muscle and money it employed in previous elections to push their candidates into the presidency.
Many hope for peace, including the foreign oil companies who pump crude out of the country to quench America's thirst for gasoline. However, Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka already offered a stark warning for his homeland where "more than just the national treasury is bled to death.
"Contenders die – their supporters also – in droves. Their relations are not exempted. Some are kidnapped to exert pressure on their ambitious kin to step down," Soyinka recently wrote. "Ultimately, the democratic project also dies, as does the sense of nationhood, casualties of the manipulation of economic, ethnic, religious and economic disparities."