At least eight Nigerian police officers have been killed in separate attacks by suspected rebels in the country’s southeast just days ahead of presidential elections.
The killings come as more than 90 million people are registered to vote this Saturday to elect a successor to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who is stepping down after two terms in office.
Four officers were killed in an attack on a police station in Anambra state on Monday, local police spokesperson Tochukwu Ikenga said, while authorities are searching for suspects in the killing of four other police officers in two separate attacks over the weekend.
The rebels “attacked Awada police station in Idemilli North … using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and automatic firearms,” Ikenga said of the police death toll from Monday’s attack.
“Four police operatives paid the supreme price while a section of the station, one police patrol vehicle and three exhibit vehicles parked in the premises were set ablaze,” he said in a statement.
Three of the attackers were also “fatally wounded”, and two others were arrested, he added.
Police have blamed the attacks on a rebel group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which is fighting for the independence of the ethnic Igbo people in southeast Nigeria. The IPOB and its armed wing, the Eastern Security Network, have denied responsibility for the frequent attacks in the region.
The violence has stoked fears about the ability of Nigeria’s security forces to protect voters at the polls this weekend.
Festus Okoye, an official with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), said the commission might not be able to deploy to some polling stations because of security concerns.
“The security agencies have promised that they have the capacity to secure our communities to make it possible for people to vote,” he said.
“[But] for people in zones that are still in conflict, there is absolutely nothing we can do.”
Nigeria faces multiple security threats, including separate armed groups fighting for different causes in the southeast and northeast and kidnapping gangs involved in criminality in the northwest.
On Saturday, gunmen attacked a police station in the Ogidi area of Anambra state, killing three officers. On Sunday, one police officer was killed in an attack on the Nkwelle-Ezunaka police station in the Oyi district.
The attackers used “guns, IEDs and petrol bombs” but did not gain entrance to the police station, Ikenga said. “One police operative attached to the station was fatally wounded,” he said, and six gunmen were “neutralised”.
There have also been unclaimed attacks on INEC offices in the region. Despite the violence, the electoral body has said that the election will go ahead as planned on Saturday.
Local news outlet The Nation wrote on Monday that “all eyes” were on the IPOB and the southeast of the country following calls for a boycott of the election, with people in the restive region called on to participate in a sit-in at home instead of voting.
The Nation called on Nigerian authorities to use “strong action” to uphold law and order across the country.
“This is no time to beg IPOB. This is time for the authorities to declare and enforce zero tolerance for lawlessness during the elections,” the newspaper wrote.
As Africa’s largest economy and top oil producer, Nigeria has resources and wealth, but armed attacks, the global pandemic and the economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have hit the country hard.
Saturday’s scheduled election has developed into a tight three-way race for the presidency, with the frontrunners all touting their past government experience and business acumen for the country’s top job.
Ex-Lagos Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress is facing former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, a surprise third-party candidate with high youth appeal.
Although Nigeria’s economy rebounded after the COVID-19 pandemic, growing three percent in 2022, critics say the recovery has not trickled down to improve conditions for most Nigerians. Falling oil revenues, growing insecurity from criminal gangs, heavy flooding that hit farming land and the effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine have combined to make things worse.
Nigeria’s unemployment rate is about 33 percent, while the number of Nigerians living in poverty rose to 133 million or 63 percent of the population in 2022, according to the national statistics bureau.
Youth unemployment now stands at 43 percent, compared with 10 percent prior to President Buhari’s first administration in 2015.
The naira currency has also fallen from an average of 200 naira to a US dollar in 2015 to approximately 750 on the parallel market.
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