KANO, Nigeria – Post-poll unrest in Nigeria has killed more than 200 people, a rights group said Wednesday, as the Muslim opposition candidate who lost alleged rigging but said he did not instigate the riots.
Aid workers rushed to help nearly 40,000 displaced, many of whom had taken refuge in military and police barracks, while victims being treated in hospitals spoke of being hacked with machetes and beaten with clubs.
Authorities say many were killed in the violence, which saw corpses burnt beyond recognition and bodies reportedly thrown into wells, but have refused to give a toll, saying it could spark reprisals and would be inaccurate.
A well-known Nigerian civil rights group based in the northern city of Kaduna put the toll at more than 200 across the north.
"In the whole region, from reports reaching Civil Rights Congress, the death toll is over 200," Shehu Sani, head of the organisation, told AFP. The numbers were compiled through his organisation's staff and associates.
He added that more than 1,000 people had been arrested in the city of Kaduna alone, where a 24-hour curfew had earlier gone into effect.
There were reports of fresh clashes in an area of the state of Kaduna overnight, with a community leader telling local radio "the killing was unbelievable and the destruction is colossal."
One government official, explaining authorities' reluctance to release an overall death toll since the vote on Saturday, said, "I wouldn't like to use the term massacre... some places it was terrible."
Curfews and military patrols appeared to have brought an uneasy calm to most areas Wednesday as many who fled slept in the open under trees at military and police barracks.
The Red Cross said it had counted around 410 people wounded in the violence that began sporadically in the country's mainly Muslim north before spreading to some 14 states on Monday.
It has also said there were many dead but has declined to give a number.
Victims being treated at the main hospital in the northern city of Kano spoke of being attacked with machetes or clubs. One man said he was pulled out of his corner shop by dozens of youths, who looted and burnt his business.
"Somebody used his machete to hit me on the forehead the first time, and the second time I tried to use my hand to protect my head and I sustained a big cut," 42-year-old Rotimi Ajayi said, bandages on his head and arm.
The number of displaced had increased to 39,700, Red Cross disaster management coordinator Umar Abdul Mairiga told AFP.
The Red Cross has warned that the slow arrival of aid to those displaced by the unrest was causing anger to build, but a spokesman for the national emergency management agency said help was being hurriedly organised.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 150 million people, is roughly divided in half between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
The north, on the edge of the Sahara, has long been economically marginalised when compared to the oil-rich south, fueling resentment and divisions that Saturday's elections helped expose.
Authorities have however argued that the rioting was not based on religion or ethnicity but was instigated by those unhappy with the victory of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian.
Jonathan took over in May 2010 following the death of his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua, a northern Muslim who had not finished his first term, prompting bitterness in the north over its loss of power.
In the most intense rioting Monday, mobs roamed the streets with machetes and clubs, pulling people out of cars and setting homes on fire. Reprisal attacks worsened the situation.
The main opposition presidential candidate, ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, alleged rigging and said he could have won the vote if not for widespread irregularities, but he stressed he did not instigate the riots.
Asked what triggered the violence, Buhari told journalists, "I don't know. It was so spontaneous that I didn't know about it.
"I did not ask them to start it, but I asked them to stop, especially the burning of churches and other religious places."
Jonathan was declared the winner with 57 percent of the ballots, easily beating Buhari with 31 percent.
While the rioting began over allegations that Jonathan's party had sought to rig the vote, the situation appeared more complex in some areas.
In remote parts of Kaduna state, residents alleged Christians had initiated the violence, leading to clashes police were unable to control.
There were also indications that Muslims were being targeted in areas of the southeast and seeking refuge in military barracks.
Despite the post-poll violence, observers have hailed the conduct of the vote as a major step forward for a nation with a history of violent and deeply flawed elections, while noting serious problems remained.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Jonathan, saying the vote marked a "positive new beginning" for Africa's largest oil producer, but cautioned that the process was "far from perfect."