ABUJA/MAIDUGURI (Reuters) - President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday urged Nigerians “to go out and vote”, promising there would be adequate security for Saturday’s postponed election that pits him in a tight race with businessman Atiku Abubakar.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced a week’s delay to voting in the early hours of last Saturday, just as some of Nigeria’s 72.8 million eligible voters were preparing to go to polling stations.
In a televised morning address on the eve of the vote, Buhari asked Nigerians to “cast aside doubt and have faith that INEC will rise to the occasion” on Saturday.
“Do not be afraid of rumors of violence and unrest. Our security agencies have worked diligently to ensure that adequate security measures are in place,” he said.
Buhari’s rival Atiku, a former vice president who is representing the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), made a similar appeal to voters through his Twitter feed on Thursday night.
“This Saturday, a vote for PDP is a vote to get Nigeria working again. Come out, vote and #DefendYourVote,” Atiku said in a tweet accompanied by a video of his rallies.
Buhari, a former military ruler who was later elected president in 2015, faces a close contest against Atiku to lead a country that has Africa’s largest economy and is its top oil producer, but is plagued by corruption and insecurity.
The Boko Haram militant insurgent group and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have carried out deadly sporadic raids in the northeast’s Borno state. Boko Haram has warned people not to vote.
Suspected Islamist militants attacked Geidam town in northeastern Yobe state on Saturday forcing people to flee, residents said around two hours before polls were due to open.
“We have along with our wives and children and hundreds of others fled. We are right now running and hiding in the bushes,” said resident Ibrahim Gobi, speaking by phone.
Around the same time a Reuters witness said blasts were heard in Maiduguri, the state capital of neighboring Borno state. He also said he heard gun shots and Nigerian air force jets were flying overhead.
Witnesses and security officials told Reuters an attack in Borno on a governor’s convoy en route to an election rally on Feb. 12 was deadlier than the government had said.
More than 1,000 soldiers from neighboring Chad, belonging to a multinational joint force comprised of troops from the region, crossed the border into Nigeria on Friday to help with the fight against Islamists, according to two Chadian military sources.
Police patrol vehicles were seen moving around Maiduguri on Friday. Electoral commission vehicles were also seen ferrying election material under heavy police guard.
“I think everybody has to be concerned about the security...it is something that worries people,” James Jatto, a pastor in Maiduguri said.
Ali Gwarfa, an internally displaced person in Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, said he was preparing to cast his vote in a nearby center despite the insecurity.
“We must go and vote for the candidates of our choice,” Gwarfa said.
Acting Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu said police would ensure security at the polls.
In President Buhari’s hometown of Daura in northern Nigeria, an election official, Saeed Ahmed, said electoral materials were being transferred to polling stations.
In Lagos, Cheta Nwanze, head of research at SBM Intel, a Lagos based intelligence firm, said the postponement of the election would favor the opposition.
“I think it is important to say that, it cast the APC ruling party in bad light and it builds popular anger toward them,” Nwanze said, referring to Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) party.
However, Bukola Saraki, director general of Atiku’s campaign, told Reuters the delay “disadvantages us”.
Members of Buhari’s APC party and those of Atiku’s PDP have accused each other of being behind the delay and colluding with the electoral commission, but neither party has publicly provided evidence to back up their allegations.
The electoral commission’s chairman Mahmood Yakubu has insisted the vote will go ahead on Saturday. He blamed logistical reasons for the postponement, and said there had been no external pressure.
Additional reporting by Madjiasra Nako in N'Djamena; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Toby Chopra, Chris Reese and Jacqueline Wong