Incumbent governor Seriake Dickson, a 49-year-old lawyer representing Jonathan’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), is seeking another four-year term in Bayelsa state against former governor Timipre Sylva.
Sylva, aged 51, is hoping for a comeback in what would be a major victory for President Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) in a traditional PDP heartland.
But with Jonathan having secured some 98% of the vote in Bayelsa during presidential elections in March, the odds are stacked against the APC in the oil-producing southern state.
The campaign has seen the candidates trade accusations of violence on the part of their supporters.
In March, thugs believed to be sympathetic to Dickson invaded a court in the state capital Yenagoa, injuring workers as the court was about to deliver a crucial ruling.
With fears of violence still high, some 14 000 police have been deployed for the election, Bayelsa police spokesman Butswat Asinim told AFP.
“Security will be water-tight. We are not taking any chances,” he said.
“There will be restriction of movement on water as from Friday while restriction on land travels will be on the day of the election.”
Bayelsa is home to some 1.7 million people and is one of Nigeria’s smallest and most poorly developed states, despite its position in the oil-producing south.
Crime, particularly kidnapping for ransom and oil theft from pipelines is high.
Many of those responsible for disrupting the oil industry in the 2000s were from Bayelsa and neighbouring Rivers state, another flashpoint area for often deadly political rivalry.
Lagos-based constitutional lawyer Jiti Ogunye said the election was crucial, and not only for gauging the level of PDP support after it was battered in presidential elections.
“INEC [the Independent National Electoral Commission] had a terrible outing in Kogi [state] last month, organising an inconclusive election which has aroused hot legal contestation,” he said.
“International observers may use Saturday’s election to test the standard and efficiency of INEC.”
A partial re-run of the Kogi governorship election in 90 districts has also been scheduled for Saturday.
INEC declared the November 21 poll inconclusive while the sudden death of APC candidate Abubakar Audu, who seemed poised to win, led to legal challenges and wrangling about who will replace him.
Earlier this week, supporters of two would-be APC candidates, including Audu’s running mate, clashed with sticks and tree branches in front of APC party headquarters.