Accessibility links

Breaking News

Rivers State Uneasy Ahead of Saturday's Election

FILE: A cloud of smoke rises from an illegal oil refinery on April 19, 2017 in the Niger Delta region near the city of Port Harcourt.
FILE: A cloud of smoke rises from an illegal oil refinery on April 19, 2017 in the Niger Delta region near the city of Port Harcourt.

Winning Rivers State is crucial for any candidate aspiring to be president of Africa's most populous nation. Nigeria's oil hub has the fourth largest pool of registered voters after Lagos, Kano and Kaduna.

Okrika Waterfront is a desolate polluted site.

Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, the water surrounding the community of some 10,000 people has turned black from decades of oil spills and illegal crude refining, forcing fishermen to relocate or search for other jobs.

The toxic legacy is part of a bleak landscape in Rivers State, where poverty has been exacerbated by an inflationary surge and many people are angry over the chaotic rollout of a currency swap.

The issues are at the forefront of this key electoral battleground as Nigeria votes on Saturday for a successor to its two-term president, Muhammadu Buhari.

In Okrika, as in much of Rivers State, voters are divided among all three main contenders.

They are Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition's Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and outsider Peter Obi of the Labor Party. Besides them, many others are on the presidential ballot

Princewill Frank has lived for 15 years in the state capital, which is home to some 3.5 million people.

He worries his ballot won't count.

"I would like Obi to win but they will rig him out," said Frank, 57, walking past a woman sitting on the front steps of a house overlooking drains clogged with trash.

Preparing tiny tilapia fish to sell, 52-year-old Abigail Monday said she would vote "Atiku," as Abubakar is widely known, "to help make the country better."

The south has long been a PDP stronghold.

But this year the dynamics have changed, in part because the powerful PDP governor, Nyesom Wike, has refused to endorse Abubakar, and because Obi has attracted unexpected grassroots support.

A cash crisis caused by a recent currency change is further complicating matters, with people now tempted to vote differently then how they would have previously, or not to vote at all.

When the central bank replaced old naira notes with new ones in December, it issued a much smaller amount of bills in an effort to go cashless and reduce the amount of money outside the banking system.

But many Nigerians rely on cash for food and transport, making the policy highly unpopular.

"I've been to the bank five times but even when you wait for hours, they only give you 2,000 (about four dollars). I've stopped going now," said Ruth Okechuwu. "I'm a PDP woman but now I'm confused... I'm angry!"

"Rivers can undermine national policies or actions and be a center for anti-state mobilization," said Tarila Marclint Ebiede, director of the Conflict Research Network West Africa network.

Another destabilizing factor in the region is the threat of violence, with former militants and thugs being "utilized informally to carry out actions of violence on behalf of political elites," Ebiede said.

"In highly contested states like Rivers, and all the states of the Niger Delta, you will see patterns of voter suppression and threats against voters and election officials."