ANALYSIS: Security concerns mount ahead of governorship election in Imo

On 14 April 2022, gunmen attacked some officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) who were conducting the Continuous Voter Registration in Ihitte Uboma Local Government Area of Imo State, Nigeria’s South-east.

Anthony Nwokorie, one of the INEC officials, was killed during the attack while others, including residents who had gone to register, sustained injuries.

The gunmen are believed to be members of a group agitating for breakaway of Biafra, which they want carved out of South-east and some parts of South-south Nigeria.

A video clip of the attack was shared on various WhatsApp groups and a Twitter (now X) handle.

“As you can see, these are the stupid people we are fighting for to have their freedom. (But), they are here planning for election,” one of the gunmen was heard shouting in the video clip, apparently referring to the INEC officials and the residents, who are mainly of Igbo ethnic group of South-eastern Nigeria.

“Today is 14th of April, we have sent a warning to you people. We don’t want any election. No more elections. No more voter cards. Do you think we are here to joke?” he queried panic-stricken residents while wielding a rifle.

Apart from the attack, some gunmen have repeatedly carried out several other attacks on various INEC facilities in the state, like other states in the South-east.
Fears ahead of the guber poll

As residents of Imo State prepare to vote in the governorship election on Saturday, there are fears of possible attacks by the secessionist gunmen.

Some communities that have witnessed increased attacks in the state lately include Amaifeke in Orlu Local Government Area, Izombe and Agwa in Oguta Local Government Area. Others are in Isu, Orsu, Okigwe and Njaba Local Government Areas.

The state governor, Hope Uzodinma, who is seeking reelection as the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), has repeatedly alleged that opposition political parties, not IPOB, were sponsoring insecurity in the state to frustrate his administration. Mr Uzodinma has, however, failed to name the alleged sponsors despite vowing to do so.

On 8 November, three days to the election, a controversial pro-Biafra agitator, Simon Ekpa, declared a sit-at-home order from Thursday to Sunday in Imo State, apparently to disrupt the poll. Mr Ekpa, a Nigerian-Finnish citizen, made the declaration in a video clip which he uploaded on his X handle (formerly known as Twitter).

“This lockdown is only applicable to Imo State,” Mr Ekpa, who is based in Finland, said in the clip.

But the president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the top Igbo socio-cultural group, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, opposed the sit-at-home order, saying such order, if obeyed, would stop the election in the state and by extension, “create chaos.”

In a statement on Thursday, Mr Iwuanyanwu urged residents of the state to come out en masse to cast their votes on Saturday.
Imo election

The poll in Imo State is one of the off-cycle governorship elections that will take place in three states on Saturday in Nigeria. The two others are in Kogi State in the North-central and Bayelsa State in the South-south region.

Imo’s governorship election went off-cycle after the Supreme Court, on 14 January 2020, nullified the declaration of Emeka Ihedioha of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as the winner of the 9 March 2019 election in the state.

Mr Ihedioha had governed the state for about seven months before his ouster.

The court subsequently declared Mr Uzodinma as the validly elected governor of the state.

Apart from Mr Uzodinma, there are 17 other governorship candidates taking part in Saturday’s election in the state. However, it is believed to be a three-horse race pitting the incumbent governor against Samuel Anyanwu of the PDP and Athan Achonu of Labour Party (LP).

A total of 2,419,922 voters registered ahead of the election, but only 2,318,919 of them who collected their Permanent Voters Cards (PVCs) can decide the fate of the 18 candidates.
Killings, destructions in Imo

Over 1,000 civilians were killed and 1,400 houses destroyed in Imo State within 30 months between January 2021 and 30 June 2023, according to reports by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law.

The reports, the collaborative effort of researchers led by the group’s boss, Emeka Umeagbalasi, were published between 10 April and 21 May this year.

Findings from the reports showed that an estimated 100 unarmed residents were killed within the period, with at least 80 of them publicly executed while 20 others were murdered after being abducted.
Off-cycle election and security implications

Yiaga Africa, a civil society organisation, said in its security report that the off-cycle elections were “likely to be influenced by the issue of security.”

The group said the IPOB’s sit-at-home order and activities of the pro-Biafra group had further “heightened the vulnerability” of Imo State to armed violence ahead of the poll, recalling the previous attacks on INEC facilities and killings by the hoodlums.

“In Imo State, there have been 12 reported cases of attacks and destruction of INEC’s assets and facilities, the highest in the country between 2019 and 2023,” it said in the report.

“Other areas in the state, such as Orlu, Orsu, Ideato North and South, Okigwe, Oguta-Izombe, Njaba, Oru East and Oru West, have also been identified as security hotpots.”
‘Security agencies fully prepared to ward off despite threats’

INEC chairperson, Mahmood Yakubu, during a meeting with National Security Adviser Nuhu Ribadu and service chiefs, admitted the existence of security threats prompting him to solicit the support of security agencies for the three off-cycle governorship elections.

Mr Ribadu, at the meeting on 27 October, assured the INEC chief that “the security agencies were fully prepared” for the elections in the three states, including Imo.

The Nigeria Police Force said it had deployed 25,565 officers and over 250 vehicles for the conduct of Saturday’s governorship election in Imo State.

Earlier in August, the INEC’s Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) in the state, Sylvia Agu, announced that 2,300 soldiers from three battalions of the Nigerian army would be deployed for the election in the state.
Residents divided

Despite the assurances, some residents who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES expressed fear over their safety during the poll. Many of the residents, who refused to give their names due to security concerns, said they were unlikely to vote due to fear of being attacked by hoodlums.

However, a few others said despite their fear of possible attacks, they would step out to vote for their preferred candidates on Saturday.