In Nigeria, Boko Haram violence disenfranchises many voters

YOLA, Nigeria (AP) — Mariam Musa gestured with her hand toward her mouth, twisting her face as she told of her main problem: not enough to eat or drink.

In the makeshift camp for Nigerians who have fled Boko Haram violence, the 32-year-old widow says that the upcoming presidential vote isn’t a topic of conversation. That’s because nearly all are more worried about putting food on the table.

Lacking voter cards or afraid to trek back to their home villages where armed extremists may lurk, most of the 1,200 people in Malkohi camp are unlikely to vote in Saturday’s presidential election .

“God help us,” said Musa, one of many widows living in this makeshift settlement in Yola, capital of Nigeria’s northern Adamawa state. “We have no salt, no palm oil, nothing.”

Asked if she planned to vote, she smiled ruefully and said: “I hear there is an election, but I lost my voter’s card.”

Over 84 million Nigerians are registered voters in this West African country of more than 190 million. But in some parts of the north, where an insurgency by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has killed more than 27,000 people and displaced millions, thousands likely won’t be able to participate in the election. There are concerns about whether voting can take place at all in some areas facing arson attacks by alleged militants.

The northern extremist insurgency is one issue voters will consider as they choose between President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in 2015 on a promise to tackle insecurity, and Atiku Abubakar, a fellow northern Muslim and former vice president who similarly vows to restore security.

For northerners displaced by Boko Haram violence, there is little enthusiasm for the polls even as they hope the outcome will somehow lead to peace in areas plagued by armed violence.

At Malkohi camp in Yola, hometown of opposition candidate Abubakar, more than 100 residents are widows whose husbands were killed in the violence. Four who spoke to The Associated Press ahead of the election said they won’t be able to vote. They are still terrified of going back home amid radio reports of continued Boko Haram attacks. Their stories are often horrific.

Musa, whose husband bled to death after his hands were amputated by Boko Haram in 2014, pointed to the back of her foot where she was shot trying to retrieve her husband’s body from the custody of Boko Haram fighters in the town of Gwoza, in the restive state of Borno.

Fati Umar, of Gwoza, said she was unable to bury her husband after fleeing a 2014 Boko Haram attack that came while she was cultivating her garden. For days she hid in the bush with her children.

Fafa Malam, also of Gwoza, fled her home with her children in 2014 after her husband was killed by gunmen.

A third woman, from the town of Madagali in Adamawa, has a child by a Boko Haram fighter who assaulted and then enslaved her for months following a 2014 attack that killed her husband. Two of her children were taken by the militants.

Boko Haram, which opposes a secular Nigeria, gained international notoriety in April 2014 when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in the northern town of Chibok.

Although Nigeria’s government insists Boko Haram has been defeated, an offshoot of the group known as the Islamic State West Africa Province still carries out regular attacks in northern towns. Those attacks have piled pressure on Buhari, with many voters questioning his ability to control the insurgency.

Some 59,000 people have fled attacks by extremists since November, according to the U.N. migration agency. The U.N. refugee agency cites as many as 39 attacks in the states of Borno and Yobe last month, underscoring the threat posed by extremists even as the government claims success.

Nigeria’s parliament approved a record $147 million for election security, but some polling workers in remote areas have rejected their posts in fear of being attacked.

Musa and others in Malkohi pointed out that there is no polling station inside the camp. Even if their voter cards were in order, they said, it still would be too dangerous to try to return home in hopes of voting.

“I hear on the radio there is still no peace in Gwoza,” said Umar, a mother of four.

Like the others, she complained about persistent food shortages amid delays in the arrival of rations provided by the government.

The women trek long distances under a scorching sun searching for firewood, and sometimes they offer labor in the gardens of host communities in exchange for food, they said.

“Our only problem here is what to eat and what to drink,” said Musa, who looks after five children. “If there is peace and there is no problem, I hope to go back home one day.”

___ Follow AP’s full coverage of the Nigeria elections here: https://www.apnews.com/Nigeria

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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