Violence in Nigeria risks derailing forthcoming presidential elections | Nigeria

Routine violence in south-east Nigeria including attacks on the offices of the electoral commission threatens to derail next month’s presidential elections, experts have said.

At least 50 attacks by armed groups against staff and facilities of the electoral commission (Inec) have been recorded between the last election in 2019 and the end of 2022. Most have taken place in the south-east, which is in the grip of secessionist agitation by various elements, especially the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob).

“It is a possibility that voting might not take place in some areas going by the security situation in the region, and not just in the south-east,” said Malik Samuel, an Abuja-based researcher at the Institute of Security Studies.

In south-east Nigeria, scores of assaults have been blamed on the Ipob group or its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN). More than 100 police and other security personnel have been killed since the beginning of 2021 in targeted attacks, according to tallies by local media.

Ipob, which says the area has been marginalised at the federal level and seeks a separate state for ethnic Igbo people, has repeatedly denied responsibility for the violence.

Since 2021, it has issued a once-a-week stay-at-home order, which completely paralyses economic and social activities across the south-east, in response to the government’s detention of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, on a series of charges including terrorism.

“You cannot even mention the election,” said a lawyer from the south-east who requested anonymity out of concerns for her safety. The lawyer said that when she mentioned to her mother that she had taken a long round trip to pick up her voting card, her mother replied that it was “not something you want other ears to hear because you don’t know who is who”.

James Barnett, a researcher affiliated with the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, said insecurity remained a significant challenge in the south-east. “This is seen in the degree to which residents still adhere to sit-at-home orders, not out of sympathy to the militants, but out of fear for their lives,” he said. “It seems clear that militants, whatever their motivations, remain capable of terrorising ordinary Nigerians in the region with concerning consistency.”

An influx of arms and a weakened and overstretched military has allowed other armed groups acting with obscure motives to perpetuate attacks.

“Ipob has become so fractured that it’s difficult to speak of it as a coherent movement any more – and a lot of criminals or political thugs seem to be using Ipob as a cover for their activities,” Barnett said.

Insecurity is a nationwide problem. Security forces are fighting a 13-year war against jihadists in the north-east, and bandit militias are terrorising communities in the north-west, where Ansaru, a terror group linked with al-Qaida, has prohibited local people from participating in the election.

Underlining the sense of untrammelled violence in Africa’s most populous nation, dozens of cattle herders and bystanders were killed in a suspect bomb blast last Tuesday in the north-central region, also known as the Middle Belt, which is prone to violence due to clashes between Fulani pastoralists and farmers, who are mainly Christian.

Nigerians are set to choose a new president on 25 February to replace Muhammadu Buhari, who has reached the end of his two-term limit. The former military general who previously led the country for a few years in the 1980s after a coup, campaigned for the post on a promise to get to grips with insecurity, but is widely judged to have failed miserably, and has cut an increasingly muted and remote figure.

The election pits Bola Tinubu, a 70-year-old former governor from Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress against Atiku Abubakar, a 76-year-old former vice-president and wealthy executive from the main opposition People’s Democratic party, who is on his sixth bid for the presidency, as well as Peter Obi, a 61-year-old former state governor running for the Labour party as the “change” candidate.

Nigeria’s elections in the past have been marred by logistical delays, violence and claims of fraud and vote buying. In 2019, the Inec was forced to postpone the election by a week just hours before voting was scheduled to start because of difficulty getting material to polling stations.

Elections have also been characterised by low turnout, which dropped from 44% in the 2015 presidential election to 35% in 2019. Experts have said disenfranchisement caused by insecurity could lead to that figure dropping again this year.

“If people for security reasons are not able to vote, that is a problem for the credibility of the election,” Samuel said.

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