Nigeria pushes back against criticism of election security

Experts remain skeptical of whether the country is prepared for potential post-election violence. Meanwhile, Nigerian officials have confirmed that hundreds of civilians have been kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists.

Ben Curtis/AP
Nigerian security forces keep guard as a convoy carrying ballot papers is delivered to an election commission office in Abuja on Wednesday.

With Saturday's presidential election in Nigeria looming, armored vehicles and rifle-toting police have surrounded the offices of the electoral commission in a Lagos suburb, while police checkpoints are multiplying along Ikorodu Road, the bustling city’s main thoroughfare.

With fears of election-related violence running high, the government has taken what it describes as extensive precautions to ensure security across the country on election day. But it is unlikely that polling will take place in most of the northeast, Boko Haram's stronghold, in the absence of functioning government institutions. And many worry that government security forces may not be able to keep a lid on the violence despite weeks of preparation. 

"There have been many more appeals to ethnic and religious identities going into this election," says John Campbell, the former United States ambassador to Nigeria. "This is always extremely dangerous in a country divided along religious and ethnic lines."

Mr. Campbell added that the military is simply too weak to prevent potential protests from spiraling out of control.

Chris Ngwodo, a Nigerian political analyst, says a lack of resources and manpower is largely to blame. Even so, he says that he is “not sure that we have done all we can do or that we are prepared as we can be.”

For its part, the police force has announced a nationwide traffic ban – with an exemption for emergency vehicles – from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on voting day. It has also promised to ensure “water-tight security around key and vulnerable points,” including refugee camps, newsrooms, government offices, and hospitals, according to a statement.

In February, President Goodluck Jonathan cited the growing threat of Boko Haram in his push to postpone the election for six weeks. While the military claims to have made significant ground against the Islamist militant group since then, it still poses a serious threat. On Wednesday, a military spokesman told The Associated Press that several hundred people were abducted by Boko Haram fighters as they retreated from a northeastern town earlier this month.

But violence of a different kind has emerged. There have been dozens of politically motivated murders amid the increasingly incendiary campaigns ran by the two main parties. Tensions escalated after the electoral commission decided to postpone the election to give the government of the ruling People’s Democratic Party more time to focus on defeating Boko Haram.

But the All Progressives Congress, the main opposition party, has accused the president of using the counterinsurgency campaign in the northeast as an excuse to slow the momentum of APC candidate Gen. Muhammdu Buhari, who it argues was on his way to victory.

Yet the APC remains determined to defeat the ruling PDP, which has controlled government since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

The heated campaign has led experts to fear a repeat of what happened following the 2011 presidential election. Jonathan's defeat of Mr. Buhari in April of that year sparked three days of protests in northern Nigeria that left 800 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

With the 2011 election still fresh in the minds of many, efforts to ensure peaceful voting in Africa’s most populous nation aren’t limited to security agencies. The Policy and Legal Advocate Center, a nongovernmental organization based in the capital of Abuja, plans to monitor polling stations throughout the country. Meanwhile, the organization has pushed two main parties to conduct peaceful campaigns.

“We are encouraging people to resist the temptation to resort to violence,” says Executive Director Clement Nwankwo. “We are doing our best to encourage nonviolence as much as possible.”

Ariel Zirulnick contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.

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