When the Boko Haram fighters swept into her town, Salamatu Billi fled for her life, running so fast that she didn’t even think about her identification documents.
Today, after five months of homelessness, she has learned that she cannot cast a ballot in Nigeria’s crucial election next month, the most closely contested in the country’s history. Having already lost her life’s possessions when Boko Haram captured her town in northeastern Nigeria, she has now also lost the right to vote.
“I’m worried that my people’s voices won’t be heard,” Ms. Billi said in an interview on Monday. “Many us won’t be able to vote.”
More than a million Nigerian refugees and displaced people are in a similar dilemma, facing the danger of disenfranchisement as one more indignity after losing everything else to Boko Haram.
Millions of other citizens are unlikely to get their voting cards in time to participate in the Feb. 14 election, for a range of bureaucratic reasons. It’s emerging as one of the fiercest controversies of the campaign, threatening to damage the legitimacy of the winning candidate and heighten the risk of postelection violence.
Many displaced people, such as Ms. Billi, cannot get voting cards because they lack documents, missed the chance to be registered when they fled, or are too frightened to return to their home state, where they must vote under election rules. As much as 20 per cent of Nigerian territory is under Boko Haram’s control, and voting will be virtually impossible there.
There are widespread suspicions that Nigeria’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party, will use the voting-card problems and the Boko Haram crisis to seek a substantial delay in the election. The government’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, last week called for a delay in the election, claiming that 30 million voter cards have not been distributed to eligible voters.
Nigeria’s election commission has denied the charge, saying that only 13 million cards were uncollected as of last week, and many of those will still be distributed before the election.
But the claim of 30 million disenfranchised voters is still circulating, promoted by those who want to postpone the election. Anonymous brochures have begun appearing in the capital, Abuja, demanding a 60-day delay in the election. “Please support this call to save our nation from imminent disaster,” the brochures say.
Similar slogans appear on T-shirts and caps in Abuja, but those who wear the items are vague on who distributed them or paid for them. The shirts read: “30 million Nigerians cannot be disenfranchised.”
Mike Omeri, an official Nigerian government spokesman, said it wouldn’t be fair to hold the election if half of the 68 million registered voters cannot vote. A postponement of perhaps six weeks could be a fair alternative, he said in an interview on Monday.
John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, visited Nigeria on Sunday and urged that the election be held on time. President Goodluck Jonathan pointedly declined to say whether the election would be held on time, saying only that the May 29 date for the new president to take power is “sacrosanct.”
A spokesman for the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress, accused the government of looking for a pretext to postpone the elections and extend its rule with an “interim” government. “We have the momentum, the government are the laggards, so they want delays,” said the spokesman, Garba Shehu. “The government wants to cling to power.”
But regardless of whether the election is delayed, the reality is that millions of Nigerians have been effectively disenfranchised because of the Boko Haram rebellion. The disenfranchised voters are just one of the election flashpoints, sparking fears of widespread violence in Africa’s most populous nation and biggest economy. At least 800 people were killed in rioting after the past election, in 2011, and next month’s vote is expected to be much closer and more contentious.
It’s being described as the first contest between two relatively equal parties, and the first in which the opposition has a realistic chance of winning. Tensions will be high, compounded by religious and regional stresses. Mr. Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria, is running against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, with many northerners claiming Mr. Jonathan violated a tradition of rotating the presidency between the north and south.
A recent Gallup opinion poll found that only 13 per cent of Nigerians are confident in the honesty of the elections next month, compared to 51 per cent during the past election.
“In 2015, risks of violence are particularly high,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. “The country is heading toward a very volatile and vicious electoral contest. If this violent trend continues, and particularly if the vote is close, marred, or followed by widespread violence, it would deepen Nigeria’s already grave security and governance crises.”
Written by GEOFFREY YORK
Globe and Mail
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