Nigeria is in the midst of counting votes cast in a contentious general election, and Catholic bishops are urging the nation’s leaders to conduct a credible and transparent vote, while at the same time the bishops closely observe the election process.

A week before the elections were supposed to take place, the bishops called for all Nigerians to pray and fast for the success of the elections.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria announced Feb. 25 that Caritas Nigeria, in collaboration with the Nigerian Justice Development and Peace Commissions, had set up a “Situation Room” to collect observations and reports about the elections from diocese across the country.

The general election, during which Nigerians voted for a presidential candidate as well as for the Senate and House of Representatives, was originally scheduled for Feb. 16 but was delayed at the last minute until Feb. 23. Catholic Action Nigeria said at the time that the delay placed a burden on citizens, especially those who underwent difficult travels to vote.

The Independent National Electoral Commission is still counting votes. Incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari has the lead as of Feb. 26, having won 13 of Nigeria’s 36 states, according to the BBC. His opponent, Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party (PDP), has won 11 states and the capital, Abuja. Uche Secondus, chairman of Abubakar’s party, has alleged that there have been irregularities in the election.

According to the Nigerian bishops’ conference, the Church has “actively engaged 3,823 accredited Observers, and 9,000 Citizen Observers to enhance data collection and collation” during elections. Father Zacharia Nyantiso Samjumi, Secretary General of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, signed the Feb. 25 report.

The bishops observed that voting at many polling places commenced very late. Some polling places experienced attacks from suspected Boko Haram militants; a 19-year-old man was killed at a polling place in the north-central region of the country. There were also some instances of people attempting to steal ballot boxes and technical problems with electronic card readers used to identify voters.

Some areas saw a low voter turnout a because security fears. In one area, armed men reportedly hijacked voting materials and abducted officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission and other officials. In at least two areas, armed men gunned a number of people down at the polls and “snatched ballot boxes.” In Lagos state, the bishops report that cast votes were burnt and voters were “chased by suspected thugs.”

The bishops also said their observers noted cases of buying and selling votes in at least ten states across the country.

“The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria is grateful to all Nigerians for their resilience and admonishes [the Independent National Electoral Commission] to improve on the electoral systems and processes for the purposes of credible and transparent future elections in Nigeria,” the report concludes.

The Nigerian bishops' conference had released a Jan. 19 statement ahead of the election after meeting at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lagos, Nigeria, specifically warning against illegal voting practices such as buying or selling votes.

“Being an election year, 2019 appears delicate; we call on Nigerians to carry out their civic responsibilities with diligence and patriotism,” the statement read, according to Pulse Nigeria.

“Nigerians should see the election as a duty to enthrone good leadership, and no amount of financial inducement should sway us.”

Nigeria became a democracy in 1999 and is Africa’s most populous nation, with the continent’s largest economy, but has for years faced attacks and kidnappings by the radial Islamist group Boko Haram. Last year, the militants burned 22 buildings, including a part of the Catechetical Training Centre in Kaya.