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Published: Sunday June 22, 2014 MYT 6:10:02 AM
Updated: Sunday June 22, 2014 MYT 6:41:41 AM

Voting peaceful in Nigerian polls seen as test for 2015

ONITSHA Nigeria (Reuters) - Large numbers of Nigerians voted on Saturday in a local election that officials said was peaceful and fair, in what is likely to be seen as a reassuring sign for next year's national poll.

The vote for governor of southwestern Ekiti state is seen as a barometer for President Goodluck Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP), which is likely to see its sternest test in 2015 since sweeping to power after the end of military rule in 1998.

Voters started queuing up hours before the formal start of voting at noon, officials said, with the polls closing four hours later. The results are expected to be announced on Sunday.

Governors are among the most powerful figures in Africa's largest economy. Some control budgets bigger than those of many African countries and their influence carries a great deal of weight in selecting presidential candidates.

The United States would be watching the vote with "great interest", Washington's ambassador to Nigeria, James Entwistle, said ahead of the polls, adding a free and peaceful election would help demonstrate the credibility of the electoral system.

More than 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced in three days of violence following the 2011 presidential election, Human Rights Watch has said. Rioting erupted mainly in the mostly Muslim north after Jonathan, a Christian from the south, won the vote.

"The election was free, fair, credible and transparent. There was no report of violence anywhere," said Taiwo Gbadegesin, a spokesman for the national electoral commission in Ekiti, adding that security forcing were patrolling the state. Nearly half a million people were registered to vote, and local media showed long queues at polling stations.

"It was generally peaceful and violence free," said one voter, Dele Ajani. "I hope 2015 will be the same."

However, in one sign of tension, officials said the opposition governor of the southern Rivers state was detained by security forces on Thursday on his way into Ekiti for a party rally. Authorities were not available for comment.

The main opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) was created out of four regional parties last year - presenting a nationwide challenge to the ruling movement.

Past, smaller, attempts at opposition alliances have fallen apart. But the APC has been emboldened by the defection of several governors from the ruling party last year.

It has also criticised Jonathan's handling of the abduction of 200 girls from a school in northeast Nigeria by Islamist militants in April.

Ekiti is around 1,000 km (620 miles) southwest of Borno state, where Boko Haram is based and where gunmen on Saturday attacked a village, torching homes and killing "many", a witness told Reuters.

The election pits the incumbent Kayode Fayemi, a member of the APC, against former governor Ayo Fayose of the PDP. Opeyemi Bamidele, a Labour Party lawmaker, is also running.

(Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Alison Williams)

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