Voters in the restive southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra go to the polls on Saturday amid a massive police deployment, in a key test of electoral credibility ahead of a presidential race less than 18 months away.
More than 30,000 police have been deployed to Anambra, the heart of a region where an outlawed separatist movement has been blamed for a string of attacks on police and election offices.
Analysts say turnout and the organisation of the vote will determine public trust in Nigeria’s electoral commission as the 2023 presidential ballot looms.
One of the three frontrunners in Saturday’s governorship race, former Central Bank chief Charles Chukwuma Soludo, has been a target for gunmen.
In March, assailants opened fire at a community meeting as he wrapped up a speech. A few months later, armed men on motorbikes hit one of his rally venues as he was campaigning elsewhere.
Soludo, brandishing his credentials as an economics professor, is running for the All Progressive Grand Alliance, which has governed Anambra for more than a decade and a half.
That dominance is now challenged in a tight race with President Muhammadu Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Campaigning has been low-key.
Attacks blamed on the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), or “unknown gunmen,” and repeated shutdown protests by the separatists over the arrest of their leader have rattled residents by closing markets and businesses.
But with political jockeying to replace Buhari heating up, Anambra is emerging as a key battleground with the ruling APC looking to consolidate in the southeast.
“Once we get it right here people will have the confidence to come out and vote in the 2023 national election,” one APC Anambra state official told AFP.
Elections in Nigeria have often been marred by violence, claims of fraud and legal challenges since the return to democracy in 1999 after military rule.
The Independent National Electoral Commission or INEC came under fire in the 2019 election after delaying the poll by one week over logistics problems.
INEC says it has done everything to ensure Anambra vote is fair and credible, acknowledging the ballot’s importance despite the complexities. That includes improvements in voter registration and the electronic transfer of results.
“It will test our determination and resolve to conduct elections in difficult circumstances,” INEC national commissioner Festus Okoye said.
“Honesty and commitment of the electoral umpire is key and… I have confidence in their leadership,” Soludo told AFP. “2023, this is a precursor to it.”
On Thursday, candidates signed a peace accord to respect the results of Saturday’s ballot and to avoid violence.
According to a poll last month by research consultancy SBM Intelligence, 68 percent said they would not vote, just over half of them citing the threat of violence.
Separatist agitation in the southeast is just one security challenge facing Nigeria as the military battles criminal gangs blamed for scores of mass kidnappings in the northwest and a 12-year-long jihadist insurgency in the northeast.
Around Anambra’s capital Awka, security was heavy on Friday with police checkpoints scattered across the city, and scores of police camped out in fields near the governor’s residence.
IPOB denies involvement in attacks and claims it is not against the election. On Thursday it canceled a one-week shutdown.
“The people of Anambra State should go out en masse and peacefully exercise their franchise,” IPOB said.
But despite the suspension, most traders in the central Awka market stayed shut, stalls were closed and the roads around and outside the capital were mostly deserted except for a few buses.
“It’s security, there is fear. They are killing people, that is why we have to think about our safety,” said a petrol station worker named Joseph, whose business was shut down. “Safety first.”
Nearby a line of empty minibuses sat waiting for customers.
“Even if IPOB says no more sit-in, people are still staying in,” said Newman, a bus driver. “No one is here.”
Buhari, a former army commander from the north steps down after two terms and already debate is heating up in the APC and PDP ranks over whether the new leader will be from the south under Nigeria’s informal agreement of rotating the presidency between regions.
For APC, winning another southeast state is key after grabbing two other states in the region through the defection of one governor and by a court challenge.
But APGA has the local incumbency and PDP also has strong grassroots in the state.
Singing before a crowd at an Awka rally, APC candidate and senator Andy Uba dismissed worries about voter apathy.
“Anambra will move forward, so they will come out to vote,” he said.