Nigerians Abandon Violence-Prone Regions Before Tight Vote

Nigerians relocated in their tens of thousands to return home to vote in presidential elections, a government official said, with many of the travelers saying they were leaving regions because of a fear of violence.

Large movements of people, which first began three days ago, heightened on Friday, Jonas Agwu, commander of the Federal Road Safety Corps in charge of the capital, Abuja, and Niger state, said by phone. This has prompted increased deployments by the agency on the country’s roads to ensure safety, he said.

President Goodluck Jonathan, a 57-year-old Christian southerner from the oil-rich Niger River delta and candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, is going head-to-head with Muhammadu Buhari, former military ruler and Muslim northerner, who is the candidate of the opposition All Progressives Congress in the closest election since the end of military rule in 1999.

Buhari’s loss to Jonathan in 2011 was followed by violence, mainly in northern Nigeria, in which at least 800 were killed and 75,000 displaced from their homes.

“The last election was a good teacher when people, mostly southerners, were killed during protests over Buhari’s loss,” Sam Adelae, a Christian from the southwest, said while waiting at the bus station in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram Islamist militant group. “The best place to be at this time is home in the southwest with my family.”

Deserted Streets

In the southern oil industry center of Port Harcourt, Victoria Street, which is dominated by Muslim northerners, was largely deserted on Friday as many inhabitants had traveled north to vote and be safe, according to Ibhrahim Adamu, a currency dealer on the street.

“My family is gone to Kano already and I have a flight to leave this evening to join them,” he said, referring to the north’s largest city.

The governor of Rivers state, Rotimi Amaechi, is a member of the opposition APC, whose support for Buhari has seen tensions mount with PDP members in what is considered Jonathan’s home region.

Africa’s most populous country of more than 170 million people is almost evenly split between a predominantly Muslim north and a mainly Christian south. Ethnic and sectarian tensions have risen in recent years on the back of Boko Haram militant attacks aimed at imposing Islamic law, or Shariah, which have left at least 13,000 people dead in six years, according to the government.

‘Not Happy’

“My home office told us we were free to leave Maiduguri because of the expected violence during the elections,” Abraham Idowu, who described himself as a pentecostal Christian pastor, said in an interview Friday in the Borno state capital. “Members of our family are not happy with us being here for the elections.”

In the central city of Jos, which has witnessed bouts of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims for more than a decade, shops run by ethnic Igbo and Yoruba traders from the south were mostly under lock by Friday, indicating their owners had traveled.

Shops and banks in the northern city of Kaduna also closed early and most streets were deserted.

“I usually close my shop around 7 p.m., but today, since it is the eve of the elections, I decided to close early because nobody knows what will happen next,” Aliyu Umar, 45, said as he made his way home to the Mando area on Kaduna’s outskirts.

Scores of people boarded buses and cars to travel to eastern Nigeria.

“I do not want to have a repeat of what happened to me in 2011,” said Emmanuel Ogbonna, a Kaduna-based computer trader whose shop was burnt after the last elections. “We hope to return to Kaduna after the governorship elections if everything goes well.”

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