Voters' dilemma as fear grips many across the country

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    Millions of Nigerians will be going to the polls in a few hours to vote in governorship and state assembly elections, but uncertainty remains regarding the possibility of holding free and fair elections in parts of the north.

    Thousands of Nigerians, taking refuge in military barracks from the post-presidential election riots that killed hundreds in many northern cities, will be too afraid to vote in today’s elections, and the Independent National Electoral Commission yesterday said that there are no plans for special voting centres for the estimated 20,000 people displaced by the violence. Polls in Kaduna and Bauchi have already been moved to Thursday following security concerns but now many more may miss out on voting altogether.

    Justified fears

    A human rights group says the number of deaths reached 500 as of Sunday, while more than 20,000 have taken refuge in police and military barracks in Kaduna, Bauchi, Kano, Gombe, Adamawa and Jigawa states. Two people were also reported killed following a series of bomb blasts in Maiduguri on Sunday.

    “Two people were killed while eight were injured by the bomb blast that occurred at Tudu Palace Hotel,” the police commissioner of Borno State told Reuters on Monday. “The number of casualties from the Kano motor park bomb blast has not yet been ascertained … the bombs are suspected to have been planted by Boko Haram members.”

    Although security chiefs and INEC officials have promised improved security, it is unclear how the heightened state of insecurity in some states will affect voter turnout. In states such as Katsina, Kano and Kwara, opposition leaders have expressed their worry that increased security, though desirable to reassure electoral officers and displaced voters, may also frighten their supporters. Yesterday, the national leadership of the Congress for Progressive Chance (CPC) wrote to INEC, demanding the lifting of curfews imposed by some northern state governors. The party also alleged the mass arrest of its members in some of the states where curfews have been imposed. In a letter dated April 25, 2011 and addressed to INEC chairman, Attahiru Jega, the national chairman of the CPC, Tony Momoh, said that the curfew would not provide a level-playing ground for free and fair elections today and on Thursday. Mr Momoh said that the party had doubts that there could be free and fair elections in what was an emergency period.

    “The curfews should be lifted to allow free movement of people or they should be limited in such a way as not to inconvenience stakeholders,” he said.

    Lack of time

    “Registers are tied to the polling units and in any case, some of the people in the barracks would have started going home while those still around can go to vote and then go back,” said Kayode Idowu yesterday, speaking on behalf of the chairman of the commission, Attahiru Jega. Coming up with new polling units would be cumbersome, the commission said, as it races to meet with a constitutional deadline which mandates that all polls be held by Friday, April 29, 30 days ahead of the inauguration of new officeholders on May 29. With the voter’s register configured to different polling units, makeshift voting points would require a reshaping of the register to allow voters to participate in the elections elsewhere if their votes are to count. This would not be possible to do in such a limited time, INEC said. Even where that is possible, there is still the challenge of workers — an area where the commission already has trouble whatwith the threat of corps members to boycott today’s elections. The electoral body is presently working on how to manage a possible withdrawal, seeking alternative hands for the elections in the affected states where many of the youth corps members have warned that they may not be part of Tuesday’s exercise because many of them were targeted in the earlier violence.

    No boycott

    For now, INEC and the National Youth Service Corps have downplayed the possibility of a boycott and its implications, hoping the ad hoc staff will return for the final leg of the nationwide exercise. Amid reports that many of the graduates have been summoned home by parents fearing for their safety, the INEC chairman said last week that the commission understood if corps members were frightened enough to stay away from the exercise. Besides those who have travelled, many of the corps members at emergency camps have indicated that they will not leave the safety of their current shelters to conduct elections on Tuesday. Mr Jega said extra hands trained for emergencies would be deployed in areas affected by a youth corps withdrawal.