ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria’s president and his top challenger in Saturday’s election renewed a pledge for peace on Wednesday ahead of a vote marked by accusations that have alarmed some observers, while some of their supporters kept the heated rhetoric flowing.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who seeks a second term, and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar vowed to contribute to a free and fair election in Africa’s most populous country and refrain from “religious incitement” or ethnic profiling.
Past elections in the country of 190 million people have been marked by deadly violence, though the vote in 2015 was relatively calm. It saw the first defeat of an incumbent and first democratic transfer of power between parties, giving some Nigerians hope that a new era had begun.
“We’ll vote according to parties but in the end the only real party is Nigeria, our country,” Buhari told a crowd of diplomats, civil society members, observers and others.
Hours later, however, a speaker at the president’s final rally in the capital, Abuja, spoke in inflammatory rhetoric, warning that Nigeria had only two choices: the ruling party or “those who want to kill us.”
Challenger Atiku at the peace pledge event quoted former President Goodluck Jonathan, saying that “my ambition is not worth the blood of any Nigerian.”
Mindful of the already tense atmosphere, the chair of the National Peace Committee urged all of the presidential candidates, more than 70 of them, not to “do anything to make a bad situation worse.”
With just a few days left before the vote, troubles have multiplied.
Gunmen opened fire Wednesday on a convoy carrying the governor of Borno state, killing at least three people, a passenger in the convoy told AP. Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic extremists, are suspected of the attack in the troubled northeast, near Maiduguri.
A fire burned an electoral office, with more than 4,600 smart card readers meant to be used in the voting “destroyed in the inferno,” said Nigeria’s electoral commission. It was the third such fire in the past two weeks.
Several people were crushed to death in a stampede on Tuesday during a ruling party rally in Rivers state in the south, widely seen as a potential hotspot of election violence. A video obtained by The Associated Press showed at least seven bodies lying amid abandoned clothes and shoes.
The push for candidates to publicly renew their peace pledge, first made in December, picked up in recent days after the governor of Kaduna state declared on television that anyone who came to Nigeria to intervene in the election “would go back in body bags.”
Another spat followed a statement by the U.S. ambassador warning that anyone inciting violence would be held to account. The ruling party objected, saying strong political speech is allowed in the U.S. but the ambassador wanted Nigerians to act “in accordance with their vision of well-behaved Africans.”
At stake in the election is a vibrant country of some 190 million people, including more than 84 million registered voters, that is Africa’s largest economy and oil producer. And yet the sluggish economy is still recovering from recession and excessive dependence on crude oil exports. High unemployment, corruption and poor infrastructure continue to hamper Nigeria’s vast potential.
After Atiku’s party accused authorities of hampering their efforts to hold a final campaign rally in the capital, scores of supporters gathered at campaign headquarters on Wednesday for what they called “a national day of prayer” over alleged plans to rig the election in favor of Buhari.
“If God can intervene, the rigging mechanism put in place cannot stand,” said Bonaventure Chimee, head of the prayer support group. “The essence is to pray for total victory.”
The opposition and some election observers have expressed concern about military deployments in part of southeastern Nigeria where separatists are active.
Ez Onyekpere with the Abuja-based Center for Social Justice told The Associated Press that the deployments are likely to intimidate voters in a region where Buhari is widely unpopular.
By CARA ANNA and RODNEY MUHUMUZA I Associated Press