Lagos – Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, goes to the polls to elect a new president next week after a controversial postponement, with the six-week delay seeing major gains against the Boko Haram jihadists.
Fourteen candidates, including the first woman, are eyeing the top job but the election is a two-horse race between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari.
Next Saturday’s poll is being watched closely, given the strong opposition challenge and the possibility of defeat for a sitting head of state.
The head of the country’s electoral commission, Attahiru Jega, maintains that “everything humanly possible” has been done to ensure a free, fair, credible and peaceful vote.
Just how many of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence in the northeast will be able to vote will come under scrutiny, as will the first use of voter ID card technology.
The election delay has hurt Nigeria’s crude-fuelled economy, which has been battered by the global oil shock, creating investor uncertainty and an urgent problem for whoever wins.
On Friday, credit ratings agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded Africa’s leading economy further into junk territory, blaming falling crude prices, political instability and Boko Haram.
Security on polling day is the major concern, with the inability of soldiers to provide cover nationwide given as a reason for delaying the initial vote on 14 February.
Since then, there has been a wave of military successes, with indications that the government may soon announce an end to the six-year conflict, that has claimed more than 13 000 lives.
But there have been warnings against any premature declaration given fears that the rebels, who have allied themselves to the Islamic State group, will revert to guerilla tactics.
Nnamdi Obasi, senior researcher at the International Crisis Group, said Boko Haram is still able to carry out its threat to disrupt elections, which it views as “un-Islamic”.
“Its fighters may not be able to seize new territory, but they could certainly still send suicide bombers to public places, including polling centres,” he told AFP.
“In many parts of Borno state, the security situation is still tenuous and displaced persons have not returned or settled down well enough to participate in elections.
“Elsewhere in the region, the polls will go, but very much in an atmosphere of unease and insecurity.”
Political violence, which has plagued previous Nigerian elections and which in 2011 saw nearly 1 000 people killed in clashes, is also seen a major risk.
Nigeria’s human rights commission recorded nearly 60 deaths in December and January and there are fears of many more with the campaign so close.
The head of the Nigeria federal police, Suleiman Abba, vowed on Friday that trouble-makers will face “the full wrath of the law”.
The United Nations has also promised “accountability for anyone who will choose to contest the election results through violent means”.
“The world really is watching,” UN Under Secretary General Jeffery Feltman said on a visit to Abuja this week.
About 68.8 million of the 173 million Nigerians are registered to vote in the presidential and parliamentary election, which are followed on 11 April by state assembly and gubernatorial polls.
But Jega has been under pressure over the electoral commission’s preparations, particularly from Jonathan’s ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP has criticised the rate of distribution of biometric voter ID cards, the technology used to “read” them and the ability of election volunteers to use the devices.
Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) for its part senses a government plot to revert to the former paper system, which made ballot rigging easier, allowing the PDP to cling to power.
Jega said on Monday that 67.8 million cards or 98.5% of cards had been sent out – up from 66.5% a week before 14 February – but about 20 million had not been collected.
A further delay has been ruled out, with Jonathan’s mandate due to expire on April 30 and a formal handover of power set for 29 May.
The opposition has said the overall result will be in doubt if the displaced in its northeastern heartland are unable to vote.
Arrangements have been made to allow internally displaced people (IDPs) to vote at polling stations in or near camps in the restive region, Jega said on Monday.