ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Violent attacks targeting Nigeria’s election commission offices are raising concerns about the security of the West African country's upcoming elections in February.
In the latest attack, assailants in southeastern Imo state set fire on Sunday to an office of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission. Nearly 50 of the commission's offices already have been destroyed since Nigeria's last election in 2019, according to local reports compiled by The Associated Press.
Nigeria — Africa's most populous nation with more than 210 million people — is confronted by several security problems including an Islamic extremist insurgency linked to the Islamic State group in the northeast, rebels in the northwest, and secessionists in the southeast. The security threats are expected to be obstacles to peaceful elections on Feb. 25, say analysts.
“It is going to be the election that is most challenged when it comes to security in Nigeria’s recent history,” Bulama Bukarti, a senior fellow with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told The Associated Press. “It is a high-stakes election: a make-or-mar election for Nigeria and its neighbors.”
Electoral violence including protests challenging official results has often hit Nigeria's elections. At least 800 people died in post-election violence after the 2011 polls.
In the southeast, where most of the attacks on election infrastructure have occurred, violent separatists want to create an independent state of Biafra, more than 50 years after a rebellion failed to achieve a separate state.
Authorities have accused members of the leading pro-Biafra group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra of killing security forces and sometimes their own people from the Igbo ethnic group, Nigeria's third-largest.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks on the election commission offices. The violence appears to be planned “to scare away prospective voters, cause significant shortages of electoral officials, compromise logistics, endanger the supply of electoral materials, and undermine the electoral process,” said Oluwole Ojewale of the Institute for Security Studies.
More attacks on the electoral commission and its facilities and staffers are expected, Ojewale said, raising doubts about the capabilities of the Nigerian security forces to curb the violence.
And across the northwest and central regions, armed groups of former herdsmen fighting communities over access to water and land have killed dozens and abducted hundreds this year, taking advantage of Nigeria’s overstretched security apparatus.
Another threat to the elections may come from the Islamic extremist rebels in Nigeria's northeast region, Boko Haram and its breakaway faction Islamic State West Africa Province. Disrupting Nigeria’s elections next year would be “the biggest success they can ever achieve,” said Bukarti with the Tony Blair Institute.
With little government administration and nearly no security presence in the northern areas, many remote communities are trapped in the violence. Analysts have warned the armed groups are now seeking to consolidate their presence in these areas.
The conflicts across Nigeria have resulted in at least 4 million internally displaced persons in Nigeria, more than the margin of victory between the winner and first runner-up in the country's 2019 presidential election.
“This insecurity could possibly be the scariest and most expansive in all of the country’s four republics. There has been no time where the accessibility to polls has been this difficult as what we are experiencing,” said Idayat Hassan, who leads the West Africa-focused Center for Democracy and Development.
Hassan said that beyond the authorities’ commitment to a credible election, the credibility of next year’s polls “hinges on the accessibility of the polls and how people are able to vote.”
The attacks on the electoral commission’s infrastructure also pose both a financial and planning challenge, she said.
Authorities must increase efforts to establish security in the rural areas of the north, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change recommended in a report published last week.
“It is essential for policymakers in Nigeria, and the country’s international partners, to understand these threats and move to mitigate them to ensure a peaceful transition of power and support any incoming administration on the ground,” said Bukarti, who authored the report.
Nigeria’s security forces have repeatedly said they have the country's security situation under control though experts have questioned their ability to restore peace in many troubled communities.
“Elections will take place in an atmosphere bereft of intimidation and violence,” national security adviser Babagana Monguno said last week, without providing details.