Nigeria election: What is going on?

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Electoral campaign posters are seen in Numan road, ahead of Nigerias Presidential elections, in Yola, Nigeria, February 23, 2023.— Reuters
Electoral campaign posters are seen in Numan road, ahead of Nigeria's Presidential elections, in Yola, Nigeria, February 23, 2023.— Reuters

Ashes and charred metal are what mostly remain of the electoral office in Ojoto in southeastern Nigeria. Holes gape in the walls that are still standing, its roof blown away. According to the 2023 election timetable, Presidential elections begin on February 25.

Early this month, armed men scaled the walls and passed the barbed wire before throwing Molotov cocktails through the windows. A gas canister exploded, all but destroying the building.

Similar attacks have been carried out elsewhere in the southeast of Africa's most populous country as Nigerians prepare for February 25.

The region is still traumatised by a 1967-1970 civil war triggered by a declaration of independence for a Biafra Republic by ethnic Igbo army officers which left a million dead.

Many in southeast Nigeria feel alienated from the federal government in Abuja after years of underinvestment.

That has fed extremist views about secession for the region where a majority of people are Igbo, one of Nigeria's three main ethnic groups along with Hausa in the north and Yoruba to the southwest.

But now, unprecedented in Nigeria's democratic history, a surprise candidate from the southeast has a chance in the race to succeed President Muhammadu Buhari, who leaves power after two terms marked by growing insecurity and poverty.

With former Anambra State governor Peter Obi among the frontrunners, some voters in the region are finally ready to believe in change.

Speaking near Anambra's Eke Awgbu market, Azuka Ibeka said she would vote for Obi. “I saw his work with my eyes, what he did when he was governor. And he is indigenous, an Igbo, like us.”

Exasperated by recent cash shortages, the 42-year-old woman added: “I will not listen to the promises of the others who only talk with their mouth. I will vote with my eyes.”

‘Most competent'

Since Nigeria's return to democracy in 1999, no Igbo has been elected head of state, further accentuating the feeling of marginalisation in the region.

Obi, a wealthy trader and devout Christian, says he is running as the candidate for all Nigerians and not as an Igbo hopeful.

Renowned for his integrity, the 61-year-old presents himself as a counter model to his two main rivals, ageing establishment figures accused of corruption.

“We don't vote for Obi only because he is an Igbo, but because he's a good person and the most competent one,” said Chigozie Okoye, a 28-year-old fashion designer.

“The others, they can't lead us. How (can) a man of 70 something lead us? We need someone that is very buoyant and full of energy.”

Former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu, 70, is the candidate of the ruling party All Progressives Congress (APC), and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, 76, is running for the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Obi has drawn a huge social media following and managed to connect to many young Nigerians, who are eager for change.

Disillusionment

Past Nigerian elections have been marred by violence, vote-buying, delays and campaigns marked by appeals to ethnic loyalties.

In his native state, Obi appears smiling on campaign posters dotted around town and country.

His victory, however, is far from assured. The southeast is certainly his region, but it is also historically a PDP stronghold.

“Before you eat these days, it's a problem. We are tired, things are bad,” said Godwin Henry, 28, who earns his living by unloading trucks and will vote for “Atiku”.

“The majority will vote for Atiku. It's his time to go, he has the experience. Things are going to change. With him, everything will be better.”

Against a backdrop of insecurity and separatist tendencies, the turnout rate remains a real unknown in the southeast. Even nationally, turnout was only around 35% in 2019.

Armed groups have attacked the offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission, government buildings and police officers in the last two years.

Most of those attacks have been blamed on the outlawed separatist group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which agitates for a separate state for the Igbos.

IPOB has always denied accusations that its armed wing the Eastern Security Network is behind the violence.

Even if the movement does not call for a boycott, it remains to be seen what proportion of the population will not go to the polls out of conviction or intimidation.

State police spokesman Tochukwu Ikenga called on “people to come out and vote safely”, promising a strong police presence.

Obi is forecast to be the winner by many polls, which are often unreliable in Nigeria.

His defeat would fuel the “fire” of IPOB supporters and add to youth disillusionment, said Nigerian political research group SBM Intelligence.

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