Nigeria 2023: Killings in Nigeria’s southeast ignite fear of voter apathy

By Ben Ezeamalu

Posted on Friday, 24 February 2023 19:11, updated on Tuesday, 28 February 2023 19:11
A police officer stops a car at a check point ahead of the February 25 presidential election at Awka in Anambra State, southeast Nigeria, on February 16, 2023. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

The gruesome killing of a senatorial candidate in the southeastern state of Enugu, just hours from the commencement of voting in Nigeria's presidential election, has ignited what is arguably the biggest concern in the region: violence-induced voter apathy.

Gunmen shot Oyibo Chukwu, the Labour Party candidate in Enugu East, and his personal assistant before setting their vehicle ablaze on Wednesday night, police said in a statement.

At least eight police officers have been killed over the past week in the region, with the police blaming the proscribed separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), for the killings. The group denies the allegation.

Nigeria’s presidential and national assembly elections will be held on 25 February, while the governorship and state parliament elections will take place two weeks later. Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, the south-east region, home to the Igbo ethnic group, has always had the lowest voter turnout percentage during elections.

The turnout in the region reached a historic low in 2019 with 26%, the lowest among the six geo-political zones in the country. Analysts attributed it to the rising insecurity in the region, among other factors.

Sit-at-home order

One of the factors that triggered voter apathy in previous elections south-east Nigeria was a sit-at-home directive – a call to boycott the election – by IPOB. In the 2019 general election, the group later walked back its call to shun the election days before the vote, but the seed of fear had already been sown among the people.

Around one week before the 2023 presidential election, a viral video on social media showed Simon Ekpa, the Finland-based leader of a faction of IPOB, calling for followers to avoid the polls as part of measures to force the Nigerian government to release the group’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu is facing terrorism charges before a federal court.

“There will be no general election in Biafraland in 2023, it is a sacrifice and a task that must be done by all Biafrans across the globe,” Ekpa says in the video.

However, on Thursday, Emma Powerful, IPOB’s spokesperson, distanced the group from the cold-shoulder order and branded those behind the directive as “Nigerian government-paid infiltrators”.

“Those calling for ‘no election’ and sit-at-home during the election period are simply Fulani agents whose sole motive is to discredit our self-determination movement by attempting to paint it as anti-democratic forces,” Powerful said in a statement.

“Their intention is to create the groundwork for the international community to view IPOB as being against democratic process and provide them with an excuse to clamp down on our activities and IPOB leadership.”

Violence in the east

At least 160 people were killed in attacks in the south-east between October and December 2022, the highest in Southern Nigeria, according to an analysis of media-reported killings by the research firm SBM Intelligence.

Nigeria’s security agencies blame a good chunk of the violence on IPOB’s militant wing, the Eastern Security Network, and lately, the ‘unknown gunmen:’ the latter became a common feature in the region’s insecurity following a jailbreak in the south-eastern state of Imo that freed nearly 2,000 inmates.

On the same night Chukwu was murdered, police say another group of gunmen, operating in a three-wheeled tricycle taxi, attacked a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) campaign minibus, also in Enugu, and used a petrol bomb to set it ablaze. The driver of the bus was burnt to death.

Daniel Ndukwe, the police spokesperson in the state, said the police also repelled an attempt to attack the convoy of the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state.

“Normalcy has generally returned in the [mentioned] locations, while further development will be communicated,” Ndukwe said in a statement.

South-east’s ‘peculiarities’

Kingsley Uju, a federal lawmaker from Imo, says he envisages “serious voter apathy” in the region on 25 February because the voters are not protected.

“How can they come to the polling booth? How can they come and vote [for] their leaders?” says Uju, who revealed in an interview on Arise Television on Thursday that he was also recently attacked by gunmen who turned out to be police officers.

“The level of criminality going on is actually beyond the voters. Mind you, they don’t have guns, they don’t have arms, so how do they protect themselves?”

Uju says voters in the south-east region should be protected by security agencies, to give them a sense of belonging in the country.

“You know we have peculiarities in the south-east, peculiarities like what happened in Enugu yesterday, honestly, is happening in all parts of south-east. So we should be protected.”

When contacted by The Africa Report, Olumuyiwa Adejobi, the Nigeria Police spokesperson, declines to speak on the insecurity in the south-east. He says the police chiefs and spokespersons in the five states should be contacted.

“They have a commissioner of police, they have [an] AIG [Assistant Inspector General], they have [a] DIG [Deputy Inspector General]. If I talk now, [the] IG [Inspector General] is speaking, so it’s not up to the level of IG to speak on it.”

18 presidential candidates are on the ballot, but three are seen as the frontrunners, with one trailing closely behind as the fourth.

Bola Tinubu, a former governor and candidate of the ruling APC, faces former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition party, the PDP.

Former governor Peter Obi of the Labour Party is the third major contender in the race, with Rabi’u Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) coming in close behind.

Analysts say the presence of Obi, who is from the Igbo ethnic group, has galvanised millions of voters across the country, including in the usually apathetic south-east region. A final list of collected Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) released by the Independent National Electoral Commission on 23 February showed 10.5 million PVCs (95%) collected in the south-east, two million more than the figure four years ago (86%).

Emeka Nwadioke, a lawyer and human rights activist, says the electorate in the southeast are likely to defy the insecurity to cast their ballots.

“The attacks are quite worrisome and pose a threat generally to the elections. A general sense of tension and insecurity is prevalent,” Nwadioke tells The Africa Report.

“However, if the security agencies are able to maintain a high level of presence and visibility especially in very strategic areas, this will give the electorate the needed comfort to come out and exercise their franchise.

“This is bound to be fostered by the fever-pitch enthusiasm shown by the electorate towards the run-up to the elections.”

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