Police officers in southeast Nigeria say officers killed three gunmen on Monday when a gang attacked the office of the Independent National Election Commission, or INEC, one of several attacks on the commission’s offices ahead of Nigeria’s elections. in February. INEC officials have said the attacks on the facilities will not deter the commission from holding the elections, but political observers say the attacks are already having an impact on the process.
Imo State Police spokesman Michael Abbatam told reporters Monday officers repelled an early morning assault on an INEC facility in Owerri, the state capital, killing three of the attackers and arresting to two others.
He said police also recovered firearms, improvised explosive devices and some vehicles.
The attackers threw explosives into the facility, destroying part of the building and some vehicles before officers stopped the attack.
This was the third attack on an INEC facility in Imo state in the past two weeks, following similar attacks on a facility in the nearby Orlu district last week and another on the local office in Oru West in early December. .
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but authorities have in the recent past blamed an outlaw separatist group, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, or IPOB, for rising unrest in the southeast. IPOB has denied its involvement.
“Between 2019 and now there have been more than 53 attacks and the attackers are getting more daring. We are concerned about how this would impact the trust of citizens, including by INEC. We have seen the devastating impact of this in the 2019 elections that INEC even had to delay the elections in some quarters,” said Paul James, election program coordinator for the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement, a group non-profit that oversees elections in Nigeria.
Imo State is one of the strong bases of the Biafran separatist movement and attempts by the authorities to crack down on separatists have led to an increase in violence there.
INEC facilities in Ebonyi, Osun and Ogun states have also been targeted and attacked recently.
“The reason why these attacks are increasing is the fact that INEC insists on trying to improve the election processes. The president of INEC has mentioned that they are going to implement technology for the election. This is just an attempt to distract INEC. The elections will be competitive. If these coordinated attacks continue, it will affect their confidence to even induce the process in the affected states,” James said.
INEC spokesman Festus Okoye said in a statement that no critical election material was destroyed in Monday’s attack.
The commission officially began the distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVC) on Monday and the process will last until January.
However, Godbless Otubure, leader of another pro-democracy group, the Ready to Lead Africa Initiative, says the attacks are affecting voter confidence ahead of next year’s elections.
“People call us to tell us that they no longer want to go looking for their PVCs. They just don’t want to die. Our responsibility is to engage Nigerians in the need to vote and participate. We do not control the security apparatus. I cannot guarantee to any Nigerian right now that he can call the military to respond to anything because I have no authority,” Otubure said.
Nigerians go to the polls on February 25 to choose a leader to succeed Muhammadu Buhari, who is retiring after two terms.
INEC says it will rely on technology to electronically transmit the results and has assured Nigerians that attacks on the facility will not affect the 2023 general election.