Lagos – Angry voters queueing for hours and entire parts of the country rendered war zones: pitfalls abound for Nigeria’s fast-approaching general election.
With just over a week until the February 16 opening of polls, logistical snafus have frustrated potential voters.
Across the country on Friday, Nigerians made last-minute attempts to pick up biometric identification cards needed to cast ballots on what was to be the last day for collection.
But many were unable to collect their Permanent Voters Card (PVC), in a sign of the challenges ahead for the 84 million people registered to vote in presidential and legislative polls that will decide the balance of power in Africa’s most populous country.
“They are sabotaging our efforts to vote and elect the candidate of our choice. It’s unfair,” said 27-year-old Tobiloba, who had waited in an unseasonal downpour since 5:30 am to pick up his PVC at a distribution centre in Lagos.
By the end of the day the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had extended distribution over the weekend until Monday.
“We will continue to take every necessary step to ensure that no registered voter is disenfranchised,” the INEC chairman, Mahmood Yakubu, said.
President Muhammadu Buhari is vying with his main challenger, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, for a second four-year term.
– Verging on chaos –
PVCs played a major role in the historic 2015 election, where Buhari beat the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, in the first victory at the ballot box for a Nigerian opposition candidate.
The cards serve as proof of a voter’s identity and are intended to reduce fraud that has marred previous votes.
Yet getting them into the hands of voters has proven difficult.
At the centre in the sprawling Lagos suburb of Lekki, where Tobiloba and thousands of others waited on Friday, INEC workers announced names over a dilapidated sound system.
“We are bringing more PVCs, remain here and stay calm,” a staffer called out to the increasingly impatient crowd.
Soldiers were deployed in the muddy courtyard. Earlier in the day they had to quell an angry crowd attempting to storm its gates before distribution began, an INEC official told AFP.
Friday was Francis Ojah’s fourth attempt to collect his PVC — but again he was frustrated.
“They didn’t find it. They told me that I should come after the elections. Can you imagine?” he said.
Meanwhile another woman left with two cards, saying one was for her, and the other for her husband.
– Complaints abound –
Nigerians have complained on social media of being unable to pick up their cards despite repeated attempts.
“We have been inundated by calls, from Nigerians to review the current process of collection of” PVCs, Yakubu acknowledged Friday in justifying the extended distribution.
But bungled organisation isn’t the only challenge the elections may face. There is poor infrastructure and unreliable electricity.
Potholed roads make access difficult to many of the nearly 120,000 polling stations across a country one-and-a-half times the size of France.
Organised crime, banditry, kidnapping and insurgencies are also major issues.
Nowhere has been as severely affected as the country’s northeast, where a decade of violence caused by the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency has killed some 27,000 people and displaced around 1.8 million.
Observers, including the United States in a January statement, have expressed fears that Boko Haram could target polling places.
Borno state in the northeast has been ravaged by the violence, and there INEC said it will open polling stations to serve 400,000 people in eight of the dozens of camps for Boko Haram displaced.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a humanitarian worker based in the state capital Maiduguri said this would mean “hundreds of thousands of people will not be able to vote,” particularly those living in areas Boko Haram rules near Lake Chad.
Another area of concern is Nigeria’s bread basket Middle Belt region, where clashes between nomadic herdsmen and farming communities have killed thousands and displaced tens of thousands since early 2018.
In the hard-hit states of Benue and Plateau, many families lost everything when their houses were burnt in the clashes, including the documents they would need to collect their PVCs and vote.