ABUJA, Nigeria — For Dauda Musa, voting in Nigeria’s upcoming election is not a choice between candidates; it is one between life and possible death.
The 31-year-old is from Chibok, the largely Christian town where almost 300 schoolgirls were abducted by the Nigerian radical jihad group Boko Haram. The April 2014 attack left the town in mourning and brought worldwide notoriety to the insurgent group, which has spiked the number of attacks committed across northeastern Nigeria in its six-year uprising.
According to Nigeria’s constitution, voters are mandated to vote at polling units in localities where they registered. But Musa, who fled to the country’s capital of Abuja, after the mass abduction in April, will not vote.
“I cannot leave Abuja for Chibok just to go back to vote. I know if I go there I may not even come back alive. Those insurgents can come back at any time,” he says.
Musa has lost several neighbors and relatives to Boko Haram, which began as a conservative Islamic organization advocating for the rights of the poor and socially marginalized in 2002, but has since become a bloody terrorist group. They slaughtered his best friend.
For Musa and many others, the mandate by the electoral commission for internally displaced people like him to go back to towns claimed to be free of terrorists just to vote seems preposterous.
He feels that the government he helped elect has now abandoned him. Musa campaigned for current President Goodluck Jonathan in the 2011 election, mainly based on their shared Christianity, but now Musa said Jonathan has failed him and millions of Nigerians.
Jonathan, a Christian southerner, is running against Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim northerner and former military ruler. Jonathan has been accused of ignoring the rampant corruption in his administration and failing to tackle a security crisis that many Nigerians believe could have been quelled in its early days. He also faces condemnation for allegedly breaking an unwritten power-sharing agreement in which the presidency rotates between the north and the south.
The election is expected to be the most closely fought since the end of military rule in 1999.
With less than three weeks left for presidential elections to begin in Africa’s largest economy, the electorate in the continent’s most populous, ethnically diverse country are anxiously gauging an ignitable political situation. Boko Haram killed more civilians than any other armed group in Africa last year, including the Islamist militants Al Shabab in Somalia and sectarian militia groups in Central African Republic, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
The violence, which has spilled beyond Nigeria’s borders into neighboring Cameroon, has left more than 1 million people displaced. Allen Manasseh, another Chibok native, is one of them.
He also fled to Abuja after Boko Haram members destroyed his agricultural business. But for him, returning to Chibok to vote is worth the risk.
“This vote is very important to me because I want to be able to say I voted in my leader,” says the 39-year-old veterinarian. “If you don’t vote, your inner conscious will disturb you.”
On Monday, Manasseh will pay $15 to board a commercial bus for a five-hour drive up to Jos or Bauchi, two areas that have experienced their own bouts of sectarian and Boko Haram-related attacks. From there, he will sleep at a hotel and then pay about $26 for a private vehicle to take him through an archipelago of atrocities. First through Potiskum, where an attack by two female suicide bombers killed four people two weeks ago, then Damaturu, where the insurgents rampaged through the city on a December morning and finally passing through Benisheik, an eerily quiet town still suffering from the memory of a September 2013 massacre by Boko Haram.
Military checkpoints are stacked along the road, but much of the route is empty, with drivers often finding themselves alone on a road frequently crossed by convoys of insurgents. In Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and birthplace of Boko Haram, Manasseh will meet with Chibok leaders to strategize on how they can get their people to vote. On Sunday, hundreds of Boko Haram gunmen launched an attack on Maiduguri and were locked in a fierce battle with government troops. At the same time, the militants attacked the strategically important town of Manguno, about 85 miles from Maiduguri, and reportedly took control of the town and its military barracks.
Leaving Maiduguri, Manasseh will continue his journey to vote. He will drive back to Damaturu, then enter Gombe, where a suicide bomber blew himself up outside of a church on New Year’s Day and killed 10 people, into Biu and then enter Damboa, the town from where Boko Haram’s black-and-white flag once waved high in the air. (The Nigerian army has since taken back Damboa.) From there, Manasseh will drive southward until he approaches the dirt road to Chibok.
More than half of Chibok’s residents have left, he says, but he hopes to meet his blind elderly uncle, the father of his cousin Maryam who was abducted by Boko Haram in the April attack. Maryam is still missing.
Given the risks of the journey, Manasseh says he will not travel with his wife and children.
The dangers Manasseh plans to face are mirrored by the thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who will be unable to vote this year. That stark reality could contribute to an already combustible mix of partisan politics that plays on religious and ethnic sentiments.
Already, the general feeling is that most internally displaced people would like to vote out the incumbent administration because of Jonathan’s poor record against Boko Haram.
Ibrahim Birma, a Borno State politician allied with Jonathan, claimed it is unconstitutional and illegal for polling units to be set up in IDP camps for people like Dauda and Manasseh, maintaining that according to the constitution, registered voters must return to the areas of origin to cast their vote.
“We should not treat any IDP as an exception,” he told an audience in Maiduguri earlier this month.
He says the government should ensure that Boko Haram-held territories in southern Borno be restored to safety. But with weekly attacks and abductions in the region, the likelihood of a sudden stability to be in place before the elections is virtually impossible. Corruption and charges of mutiny have rocked the once-formidable Nigerian army. Despite a 2014 defense budget of more than US$2 billion and a security allocation of nearly $6 billion, Nigerian soldiers regularly complain of being outmanned and outgunned by the insurgents. Eyewitnesses report that soldiers often flee along with civilians.
But if thousands of displaced Nigerians do not feel their towns are safe enough to return to for a vote, the outcome of the election could be perceived as illegitimate and lead to violence. Post-election violence in 2011, left 800 people dead and more than 65,000 displaced, according to Human Rights Watch.
Chibok is one of the places that the government deems safe enough for residents to return to vote. But the town is still vulnerable, surrounded by Boko Haram-controlled territory. Overall, the insurgents control swaths of territory the size of Belgium in southern Borno and northern Adamawa states.
“As far as I am concerned, those are no-go areas,” said Baba Yusuf, the electoral commissioner in Adamawa, one of the states under emergency rule.
But not all displaced people are mandated to return to their homes to vote. In Adamawa, residents who fled towns that are presently in the grips of the insurgents will be able to vote in polling units set close by IDP camps scattered across Adamawa’s capital of Yola. In Borno, the electoral commission is actually setting up polling units inside the IDP camps in Maiduguri.
However, on Thursday, the highest security adviser in the country, Sambo Dasuki, advised the electoral commission to postpone the election to allow more time for voter cards to be distributed.
This leaves people like Dauda Musa in limbo in Abuja. He had hoped the electoral commission would have arranged for those who ran away from Boko Haram attacks to be able to vote anywhere they find safety within Nigeria. But on Election Day, he will stay indoors, jobless, thinking about his parents who chose to remain in Chibok, even if it means death.
“I have no choice,” he says, “and my life is more important than a vote.”