By OBINNA EZUGWU
More than any in Nigeria’s recent history, the 2023 general elections have built excitement. Young Nigerians, gutted by a host of economic, environmental, and security challenges, are hopeful that the new technology-driven electoral reforms aimed at checking rigging will offer them an opportunity to ‘take back the country.’ Many are animated, active and vociferous across social media, and in the streets.
However, threat of insecurity is also growing ahead of the polls, and a little more than two months before voters head to polling booths, many fear that non- state actors with stated objective to undermine voting could put paid to the aspirations of birthing a new leadership in the country by disrupting the electoral process.
In recent weeks and months, offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have been attacked across the Southeast geopolitical zone, with voters cards and other voting materials destroyed. And many in the affected communities share reasonable concerns ahead of the presidential election on February 25, 2023.
“What we are witnessing with these unknown gunmen is very worrying,” said Anastasia Ogbu, a business owner in Igbo-Eze North local government area of Enugu State.
“The other day, they burnt INEC office here. They are insisting that we should not have an election, which is very disturbing. All of us here are ‘Obidient’ because we believe that Peter Obi can change the country for better, but now everybody is afraid. I worry that people may decide not to come out to vote on election day.”
A separatist agitation spearheaded by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), whose leader, Nnamdi Kanu, remains in detention, has since become violent. On December 12, 2020, Kanu launched the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a militant wing of the group, to according to him, check the menace of Fulani herdsmen in the region.
Recent report by the Nigeria Security Tracker put the number deaths due to insecurity in the Southeast, between January to November 2022 at 585, more than the 369 recorded in the South South and the 284 in the Southwest.
Meanwhile, Northwest where bandits are on rampage had 2,481 deaths to lead the chat, followed by the Northeast which has been battling more than a decade long insurgency at 2,127, while the North Central which has mostly borne the brunt of herders attacks came in at 2,089.
The figures paint a picture of a country deeply stretched by insecurity, and in the Southeast where separatist agitators have vowed to ensure that there is no election, concerns are growing, especially as many feel that the attacks may hurt the chances of Peter Obi, Labour Party presidential candidate who has emerged as a credible third force – an alternative to the dominant the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), which has Bola Tinubu, former Lagos State governor, as its presidential candidate, and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president as candidate.
Both Atiku and Tinubu are in their 70s, and Obi, 61 and energetic and versatile, is inspiring the youth population who see an alternative in him; one person that could reverse the current trajectory of economic hardship.
“Except Obi wins, we are in trouble,” declared Ken Nnaji, a communication graduate, who runs a water factory in Enugu.
“We have seen the destruction of the economy that happened in the past few years. If things continue to follow this pattern, Nigeria will be in real trouble in the future. But I believe that Obi can change the story.”
Asked about the insecurity and how it might affect the electoral process, Nnaji said, “Yes, the situation is troubling. Honestly, I hope the situation is brought under control. You recall that a friend of mine, Kelvin Ezeoha, a member of APC, was murdered by these gunmen recently while they were having a meeting. The concern is real. I don’t believe that they can stop the election from holding, but they may end up disrupting voting in the East, which would be a big problem for us.”
An attack, on on Monday by the gunmen on INEC office in Owerri, came days after similar attack on the commission’s office in Oru West local government of Imo State. The Oru attack was the seventh attack on the commission’s facilities within the last four months, and had occurred three days after another office was attacked in Orlu local government of same Imo State.
“Once again, the Commission expresses its concern on the consequences of what appears to be a systematic attack on its facilities across the country on the conduct of elections in particular and electoral activities in general,” Mr. Festus Okoye, chairman of the commission’s information and voter education committee, had said in a news conference after the incident.
“The attention of the security agencies has been drawn to this latest incident for investigation and prosecution.”
Such attacks have become frequent occurrences in Southeast states, including Enugu, Ebonyi, Anambra, Imo and Abia, and similar ones have also occurred in the Southwest states of Ogun and Osun where INEC offices were burnt and voters cards destroyed by hoodlums.
INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, has, however, continued to maintain that the recent attacks on the commission’s facilities will not stop the conduct of the 2023 general elections. His position is re-echoed by by Babagana Monguno, the National Security Adviser (NSA), even as President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly charged security agents to reign in on the perpetrators of violence and ensure hitch-free polls in 2023.
“For those people who’ve been going around burning offices, killing people, the security agencies have been given that instruction. Visit them with all you have and let them understand that there are consequences for bad behavior, that we’re determined,” Monguno said while featuring at the Ministerial Media Briefing organised by the Presidential Communications Team at the Presidential Villa, Abuja recently.
“Everybody is a Nigerian, everybody is free to do whatever he wants to do, but don’t cross the line and move into another person’s territory.”
While it is unlikely that the prevailing insecurity will stop the election from holding altogether, what cannot be dismissed is the threat of large sections of the country being disenfranchised, which could be a dent on the outcome.
Beyond the Southeast, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), is a potent threat to the conduct of elections in the Northeast, particularly in Borno State where the terrorist group has continued to pose security threat. But even more so in recent months are bandits who have continued to unleash mayhem in various localities in the Northwest and North Central.
Many residents of Birnin Gwari and Giwa local government areas of Kaduna State, two of the most hit areas of the state, have indeed argued that it is unlikely that elections would hold in many communities in the two local governments due to insecurity.
The situation is similar to what is obtained in many other states across the region.
A couple of months ago, members of the jihadi group Jama’atu Ansaru Muslim Fi Bilad al-Sudan, known popularly as Ansaru, threatened to ban political activities in parts of Kaduna. The terrorists, according to many accounts, have sacked as many as 60 communities in Birinin Gwari, while communities in seven out of the 11 wards of the local government had been overrun.
Reports say Ansaru are already recruiting foot soldiers from various communities under their control and have continued to preach against participating in political activities since politicians had not done anything to better their lives.
The situation is not any better in Niger and even worse in Zamfara and Katsina, Buhari’s home state, among other states.
“Whether we like it or not, insecurity is going to be a major factor in 2023 election,” said Chris Kehinde Nwandu, publisher of CKN News.
“In as much as the government tries to say that it won’t, and that we are better off now than we were in 2015, we have to look ourselves in the face and tell ourselves the truth.”
Recent weeks have seen terrorists, who have occupied several communities in Niger, Zamfara, Kaduna, Plateau, among other states in the North Central and North West, up their game with attacks that are becoming increasingly daring, and getting closer and closer to the country’s seat of power.
“We must have a country first before election and our people must be alive and safe first to be able to vote,” said Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, former presidential aspirant and chieftain of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC).
According to him, “the Barbarians are at the gate of the capital, our Republic is under threat, our tested ways of life – pluralism, democracy, state secularism – are about to be imperilled. The clock is ticking; time is running out, the forces of evil are set to take the Capital.
“In the last two years, we have spoken on the nation’s security challenges and offered concrete suggestions on how to confront them, but all suggestions have been ignored.
“Now is the time for patriots and statesmen and friends of Nigeria to rally and defend the Ideals of our Republic, the ideals of peace and the ideals of modernity and civilisation.”
The March 28 attack on a Kaduna bound train in which nine people were murdered and 61 abducted – all of whom have been freed after reported payment ransom each, was a significant escalation from the August 2021 attack on the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna, in which two officers were killed and a senior officer abducted; and another daring attack on Kaduna international airport three days prior, on Friday, March 25 in which a security guard was killed.
“We are in a very difficult situation, and Council understands. Mr. President understands people’s concerns about the growing insecurity. But I can assure you that there’s no straight cut and dried method of dealing with this thing unless all of us embrace each other,” Monguno, told journalists after a security council meeting in Abuja recently.
“I know people are weary, people are tired, people are beginning to gravitate to other places for self-help. The truth is that help is rooted in everyone working for the other person.”