Police officials in southeast Nigeria say operatives killed three armed men on Monday when a gang attacked the office of the Independent National Electoral Commission, or INEC — one of several attacks on the commission’s offices ahead of Nigeria's polls in February. INEC officials have said attacks on facilities will not deter the commission from conducting the elections, but political observers say the attacks are already having an impact on the process.
Imo State police spokesman Michael Abbatam told journalists Monday that officers repelled an early morning assault on an INEC facility in Owerri, the state capital, killing three of the attackers and arresting two others.
He said the 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 the officers halted the attack.
This was the third attack on INEC facilities in Imo state in the past two weeks, following similar attacks on a facility in nearby Orlu district last week and another one on the local office in Oru West at the start of December.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks but authorities have in recent past blamed an outlawed separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra or IPOB, for increased restiveness in the southeast. IPOB has denied involvement.
"Between 2019 and now there have been over 53 attacks and the attackers are becoming more daring. We're concerned about how this would impact on citizens’ confidence, even on the part of INEC. We have seen the devastating impact on this in the elections in 2019 that INEC even had to delay elections in some quarters," said Paul James, election program coordinator at the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement, a non-profit group that monitors elections in Nigeria.
Imo state is one of the strong bases for the Biafra separatist movement and attempts by authorities to crackdown on separatists have led to an increase in violence there.
INEC facilities in Ebonyi, Osun and Ogun states have also been recently targeted and attacked.
"Why these attacks are increasing is the fact that INEC is insistent on trying to improve the processes of the elections. The INEC chair has mentioned that they're going to deploy technology for the election. This is just an attempt to distract INEC. This election is going to be competitive. if these coordinated attacks continue it will affect their confidence to even induce the process in those states that are affected," said James.
INEC spokesman Festus Okoye said in a statement that no critical election materials were destroyed in Monday's attack.
The commission on Monday officially started the distribution of Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) and the process will run through 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 polls.
"People are calling us saying they don't want to go get their PVCs anymore. They just don't want to die. Our responsibility is to engage Nigerians on the need to vote and participate. We don't control the security apparatus. I cannot guarantee any Nigerian right now that I can call the military to respond to anything because I'm not in authority," said Otubure.
Nigerians go to the polls on February 25 to elect a leader that will succeed Muhammadu Buhari, who's exiting after two terms office.
INEC says it will be relying on technology to electronically transmit results and assured Nigerians that the attacks on facilities will not affect the 2023 general polls.