Nigeria election preparations in disarray

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    Muhammad Suleiman thought it was safe to go home after the army drove Islamist insurgents from his town in north-eastern Nigeria three years ago.

    In December, militants struck again. Suleiman fled into the bush leaving his voter card behind with his other belongings.

    The 28-year-old carpenter now fears he will not be able to vote in Nigeria’s presidential election on February 16.

    Authorities say they will set up polling booths in the camp where Suleiman has taken shelter in Maiduguri, only those with voter cards will be allowed to cast ballots.

    “I want to vote,” he said. “We have to live here, so hopefully we can vote here.”

    Insecurity is rampant across Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 190 million people and its largest oil producer.

    In the north-east, a surge in attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamist insurgency’s offshoot, Islamic State West African Province, is throwing election plans into chaos. Thousands of people fled their homes since December in a region already sheltering 1.8 million displaced people according to United Nations figures.

    In Nigeria’s central states, clashes between farmers and nomadic herders over dwindling arable land killed thousands and displaced thousands more.

    Thousands also fled in the north-west, rendering swathes of the region inaccessible even to the military.

    The bloodshed is a challenge for President Muhammadu Buhari as he seeks a second successive four-year term. Buhari, Nigeria’s military ruler for 20 months in the 1980s, was elected in 2015 partly on a promise to restore security.

    “Our politicians — we voted for them, we brought them into power. Once they’re in power they don’t take care of us,” said Bulama Kyari, a community leader who fled an attack on Kekeno in December.

    “Before, I had confidence in Buhari and voted for his party, but now I don’t support any of them.”

    The north-east is a traditional support base for Buhari, now 76, but violence is making it more difficult for his All Progressives Congress party to turn out the vote this year.

    “I would vote for President Buhari,” Suleiman said. “But we left our voter’s cards.”

    Buhari’s main rival, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, criticised his security record and said in his manifesto he would use diplomacy, intelligence and border control to tackle insurgents.

    THREAT OF ATTACKS DISRUPTING ELECTION

    Government and the military try to return the displaced to their homes in time to vote, but some said they were sent back against their will. Others preferred to take their chances at home rather than in the teeming camps.

    Islamic State and Boko Haram both said they plan to disrupt the election by conducting attacks, the United States Embassy said in a statement in January. Attacks also surged in the run-up to the 2015 election.

    Many newly displaced say soldiers dropped weapons and fled when Islamic State or Boko Haram arrived. Some said insurgents killed soldiers they discovered fleeing with civilians.

    The Nigerian defence headquarters did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the army commander responsible for election security in the north-east said the officer on operations. The military said only insurgent “remnants” are left in the north-east.

    In Borno, the state worst hit by the decade-old Islamist insurgency, electoral officials have been carrying out voter registration drives in the camps and in towns where people have fled. But the effort is fraught with problems.

    “Where we don’t have security or peace, voting won’t prevail,” said Mikah Lakumna, an official with the electoral commission in Borno.

    Last year, he said, the air force flew election officials into the remote town Rann near the border with Cameroon. Efforts to register voters and preparations for the election collapsed last month when Boko Haram fighters overran the military and thousands fled.

    “The structure crumbled,” Ya Bawa Kolo, head of Borno State Emergency Management Agency, said of recent attacks on electoral commission plans. “We will try our best to see how we organise all these scattered locations and a scattered voting population.”

    Lakumna said a plan was being worked on to allow people who lost voter cards to vote but details had not yet been finalised.

    Election observers worry people streaming into displacement camps could exacerbate vote-rigging. There was widespread vote-buying in camps in 2015.

    In Maiduguri, camps swarm with thousands of new arrivals. Men and women clamour at the windows of an electoral commission booth, hands outstretched with slips of paper containing information needed to get their voter cards.

    “The electoral commission told us we would vote in our home towns, but now we don’t know what the plan will be,” said Modu Awwame, a community leader from Cross Kauwa, who fled to Maiduguri in December. “The commission doesn’t know what the plan is.”