Voters in northeastern Nigeria are eager to cast their ballots in Saturday’s crucial election. But the security challenges caused by Boko Haram are immense as DW's Thomas Mösch reports from Maiduguri.
Traffic is dense in Maiduguri, the capital Nigeria's remote Borno State. Only a few days before presidential and regional elections, the streets are lined with election posters of all sizes. They almost exclusively show the candidates of President Muhammadu Buhari's APC party, which governs both northeastern state as well as at the federal level.
Campaign posters from other political parties are few and far between. Nevertheless, a convoy from the Green Party of Nigeria, which has made agriculture its main policy, stalls the flow of traffic on this day.
Maiduguri has grown steadily in recent years – a large percentage of the more than two million Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram attacks have sought refuge here.
Numerous official and unofficial refugee camps sprawl in and around the city. One of them is Bakassi, located only a few minutes drive from the center.
Some 30,000 internally displaced people live in the Bakassi camp, according to the Borno State Emergency Management Agency, which runs it. Many come from areas near Lake Chad on the border with Chad and Niger or from regions bordering Cameroon. Some are lucky enough to live in permanent housing once intended for government employees. Most, however, shelter in tents pitched on the dusty ground.
Refugees backing Buhari
While women and children fill their canisters at the water points, men sit idly or doze in the shade of the roofs.
But there's a flurry of activity in front of a stone buildings where the Independent Electoral Commission is issuing voter ID cards. Clustered among the crowd is Zainab Mohammed Mustapha. The young woman is relieved – after waiting since early morning, she finally managed to get her voter card just before closing time.
"I want to vote for Buhari because I know that he helps ordinary people," she says confidently.
Hadiza Safiyanu would also like to vote for Buhari on Saturday but unlike Mustapha, she has waited in vain. "I'm angry," she told DW, "because I still didn't get my [voters] ID card. This is the third time I have been here and I still have nothing!"
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Voting in IDP camps
Those living in Maiduguri's camps hope the situation will calm down after the elections and they can then return to their homes. Meanwhile, they still have the chance to vote in polling stations that will open in refugee camps for the elections scheduled for February 16 (national and presidential) and March 2 (regional).
Several communities uprooted by Boko Haram attacks have provisionally moved their administration to the camps – and the Election Commission is also making use of these headquarters. In light of the ongoing insecurity in large parts of northeastern Nigeria, political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim sees this development as positive.
"This makes logistics easier," Ibrahim told DW.
He believes that the elections can be largely credible in Borno State as well.
Ibrahim has also helped to set up a national network of Nigerian civil society observers. "We will observe 30 percent of polling stations nationwide," he said.
Security on high alert
Nigeria's security forces are seeking to alleviate any doubts about whether elections in Borno can be conducted peacefully. The head of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps in Borno, Abdullahi Ibrahim, said that his corps, along with police and army, will secure an estimated 4,000 polling stations in the state.
"INEC will be able to conduct the elections in all districts," the commander said.
Others are more skeptical.
"It is unlikely that elections can be held in some districts of northern Borno," security expert Kabir Adamu told DW. "There's still fighting there," he said, adding that in some districts, government and terrorists were still battling for control.
Civil defense commander Ibrahim, however, rebutted this point when asked by DW. People in districts affected by ongoing conflict will be able to cast their votes in the refugee camps, he emphasized. "Voting will be able to take place one way or the other," he stressed.
Abdullahi Ibrahim, a top security official, says security will be tightened around polling stations in the north
Ahmed Shehu, who works with the Network of Civil Society Organizations in the Lake Chad Region, agrees.
Shehu is, however, disappointed that only one of the 180 organizations in his regional network has been accredited to officially observe the coming elections. Foreign aid is only flowing to national, rather than regional, organizations, the activist complained. But regional observers have the advantage of insider information to help fight election fraud.
"Our members know those who potentially are involved in election fraud. When they see these people near the polling stations, they know that something is going on," he explained.
Vigilantes secure Nigeria's election
The next day, Ahmed Shehu stands in a hall together with about 100 people, mostly young men with a few women scattered in between. Together with other civil rights activists, he's organized an information day to train members of Borno's Civilian Joint Task Force about their rights and responsibilities during the election.
The local task force, made up of volunteers operating as a sort of militia or vigilante group, emerged in Borno back in 2013 as a civilian response the the Boko Haram violence.
The civil defense forces often bear the brunt of the fight against the terrorists. Currently, they are focusing on making the elections as safe as possible under the motto: 'Vote in peace, Vote for peace'.
But, warn the civil rights activists, the task force must remain politically neutral.
Among the listeners is Altine Mohammed Abdullahi. The young woman joined the vigilante group because Boko Haram jihadists murdered her husband and her younger sister.
She calls for politicians to do something for those fighting for the civil defense force: "After all we have risked our lives for this cause."
And she has one wish when the elections are over.
"Buhari and our new governor here in Borno should help to end the Boko Haram crisis once and for all," she said — a sentiment shared by many others in Maiduguri.
Uwaisu A. Idris and Al-Amin Suleiman Mohammed contributed to this article.