Lagos, Nigeria – On Sunday, Nigerian police officers repelled an attack by unknown gunmen on the office of the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) in the south-eastern state of Enugu.

The incident has reinforced lingering doubts that Nigeria’s general election will go ahead as planned next month.

Banditry in the north-west, secessionists in the south-east and violence in the north-east by ISIL-allied armed groups (ISIS) have already contributed to a rapidly growing atmosphere of insecurity.

But the attack on the electoral commission offices and recent comments by a senior INEC official have amplified growing concerns about the election.

“If insecurity is not monitored and dealt with decisively, it could ultimately culminate in the cancellation and/or postponement of elections in enough constituencies to hamper the declaration of the election results,” said Abdullahi Abdu Zuru, president of the Board of the Electoral Institute of INEC, in the validation of the electoral security training resources in Abuja last week.

In December 2022, three attacks, including arson and the use of explosives, rocked the INEC offices in Imo state in the south-east of the country, killing five people.

In recent years, there have been targeted attacks on commission facilities and personnel in the south-east of the country as the secessionist agitation of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has turned violent, prompting a fierce military response. of the government.

These incidents are the latest in a long-running pattern of violence surrounding Nigeria’s elections, which are often hotly contested, but experts say it is a new wave pushing insecurity in the country into uncharted territory.

“Historically, as we get closer to the election cycle, there is always an increase in violence in the country,” Oluwole Ojewale, a Dakar-based analyst at the African Institute for Security Studies, told Al Jazeera. “What has now changed is that we now have greater attacks on the INEC infrastructure. We have not seen this dimension before,” he said.

An increase in sophistication

Last month, the electoral commission said it had recorded 50 attacks in 15 of the country’s 36 states and the capital since 2019. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) suggests that might be a conservative estimate. .

According to ACLED data shown to Al Jazeera in December 2022, there have been more than 100 election-associated attacks since the last election in 2019. At least 67 of them occurred on non-election days between January 2019 and December 2022. .

The year with the highest incidence of violence, with 24 events, was 2019. There were 21 attacks in 2020, 14 in 2021, and 9 in the last year.

Despite the drop, analysts say the episodes represent an increase in precision and sophistication, as there are now more attacks focused on high-end offices and with more explosives in use.

On December 12, 2022, the day the collection of Permanent Elector Credentials began nationwide, the INEC state headquarters in Imo was attacked at 3 am. It was the third attack in 12 days against an INEC office and targeted the Elections and Parties Monitoring department, local newspapers reported.

(Al Jazeera)

Overall, the South East leads the pack with at least 30 attacks since 2019. There were 12 attacks during this period in the South West region, most of which were attributed to unrest following largely peaceful anti-police brutality protests, October 2020. By contrast, the fewest attacks occurred in the Northeast and Northwest regions: three each.

“The attacks, specifically in the southeast, are aimed at derailing the already fragile electoral process, blocking the will of the people as reflected in the polls, and further exploiting the sense of neglect and marginalization felt among local communities,” Mucahid said. Durmaz, a senior analyst covering the West. Africa at London-based risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft, he told Al Jazeera.

Imo experienced more attacks against INEC facilities and personnel than any other state in the country with at least 13 events recorded by ACLED since 2019.

Most of these attacks have reportedly been carried out by “unknown gunmen”, a catch-all phrase used to refer to the paramilitary wings of secessionist groups. Experts agree that the attacks are to delegitimize the electoral process and promote their separatist agenda.

“The elements of the right [of IPOB] believes that continued commitment to the democratic process through elections undermines its goals of seceding from Nigeria,” Ojewale said.

(Al Jazeera)

Political and security implications

As Nigeria moves ever closer to elections, widespread concern over insecurity will top the list of 93.4 million people eligible to vote next month.

“Sophisticated attacks have shown a significant increase in the capacity and strength of these armed groups,” Durmaz told Al Jazeera. “Preventing potential attacks on high-level officials and offices is critical to conducting free and transparent elections.”

Each of the three main candidates has pledged to tackle insecurity and revamp the economy. They also separately vowed to engage with IPOB and address feelings of marginalization fueling the unrest, a different stance than the current administration’s policy.

But the vote has to happen first.

Traditionally, Nigerian elections have often been characterized by widespread voter apathy. In 2019, only a third of registered voters participated in the elections and analysts estimate that insecurity could lead to a similar turnout this year, or worse.

INEC’s admission that the election could be canceled or postponed if security guarantees cannot be met has raised growing concern about the political and security implications that lie ahead.

“The biggest problem will be providing a proper justification for a situation that everyone has been aware of since INEC announced the electoral timetable,” said Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, a research analyst at the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja.

“Any postponement will need to be followed with the appropriate assurance that the length of the delay will result in tangible progress and these are guarantees that cannot necessarily be met,” he added.