A closely-watched election in one of Nigeria's states got off to a slow start on Saturday, with most polling stations still closed hours after voting was due to begin.
The governorship vote in southeastern Anambra state is the first in a cycle of state and federal polls culminating in presidential elections next year and is seen as a test of Nigeria's ability to hold credible national elections.
Observers are hoping Africa's most populous nation can avoid a repeat of the sort of chaos seen during the 2007 elections which brought President Umaru Yar'Adua to power, polls marred by widespread ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation.
Dozens of people stood outside polling stations in the state capital Awka and surrounding villages two hours after voting should have started, with electoral officials yet to arrive.
"We are eager to cast our votes. We are waiting but the materials are yet to arrive. From the look of things the elections should be peaceful," said Sunday Okpala, a voter waiting in the village of Isuofia, just outside Awka.
Anambra has a history of political violence. Roadblocks jointly manned by police and soldiers sprang up around Awka ahead of Saturday's vote.
The run-up to the poll has already been turbulent. Most of the main parties chose their candidates without conducting primaries, sparking intra-party wrangling in a state that styles itself the "Pride of the Nation".
There is also a legal question mark over the vote.
A court in Nigeria's commercial hub Lagos ruled on Thursday the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was not competent to organise elections because its board did not have the minimum number of members required under the constitution, according to a prominent Lagos lawyer.
"Any of the candidates may use the judgement to challenge the (Anambra) poll. It is illegal," said barrister Femi Falana.
An INEC spokesman said the commission had not been served with an injunction after the ruling, which followed a challenge to a local election in another state, and was therefore within its rights to go ahead with the Anambra poll.
Yar'Adua pledged to reform the electoral system before 2011 after the chaotic 2007 polls, but electoral reform bills he sent to parliament have yet to be passed into law.
The Anambra election comes amid wider political uncertainty.
Yar'Adua is in his third month in hospital in Saudi Arabia, where he is being treated for a heart condition, and his failure to formally hand over to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan has brought the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Leadership polls in Nigeria's 36 states are critical because state governors are powerful figures, some controlling budgets larger than those of neighbouring countries, and key players in party conventions at which presidential candidates are chosen.
Anambra is one of eight states, including Lagos and Kano in the north, governed by opposition parties. The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) is anxious to take them by 2011.
At least 25 contenders are contesting the polls. The main rivals include Peter Obi, seeking a second term for the opposition All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), and former central banker Chukwuma Soludo for the PDP.
Ex-state governor and former PDP member Chris Ngige is running for the opposition Action Congress party. Another ex-PDP governor Andy Uba, former aide to ex-president and powerful kingmaker Olusegun Obasanjo, is running for the Labour Party.
The fierce four-horse race has polarised the PDP's support base and raised the chances of a bitter fight. It is a scenario many fear could be replicated at a national scale should the party struggle to agree on a successor for Yar'Adua.
ReutersLast Mod: 06 Şubat 2010, 18:40