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Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram may be ineligible to vote in upcoming election

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Nigerians fleeing a wave of killings by the Islamist group Boko Haram have already lost loved ones, livelihoods and most of their possessions. Now they seem likely to lose their vote.

A closely fought presidential election is to be held in a month’s time and the law states people must go home if they want to participate, posing a risk to the credibility of the poll in Africa’s biggest economy.

The electoral commission says it is rushing to distribute voter ID cards to the 1.5 million people who have been displaced, according to an Oxfam estimate, by the insurgents fighting for an Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria.

But for many voters the idea of going back to their home constituencies, as they legally must in order to cast their ballots, is too harrowing to contemplate.President Goodluck Jonathan faces ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in the Feb. 14 election, and there are grave doubts over whether voting can happen in swathes of the northeast overrun by rebels. As they are mostly opposition strongholds, Buhari stands to lose out the most.

Armed men

The first time Boko Haram attacked Daniel Dunya’s village, dozens of heavily armed men stole all the cattle and kidnapped several women. The second time they burned down churches and many houses. By the time they came back for a third go, abducting girls and killing the men, he was ready to leave.

“Most of my documents have been lost, including my voter’s card, because I was running away,” he told Reuters at Makholi displaced persons camp in Adamawa state, where chickens, goats and lizards darted among piles of trash.

Dunya’s home lies near the town of Gwoza, in mountains controlled by Boko Haram near the Cameroon border, an area over which the militants have declared an Islamic state.

“As a Christian, they will kill me if I go back to my local government area. Boko Haram are still running around there,” he said. He remains optimistic that somehow he will be able to vote.

“I’d vote for someone who will bring back peace,” he says, perhaps unsurprisingly, when asked which candidate he prefers.

As he spoke, a boy also called Daniel ran around in the dirt, between rubbish and animal faeces, the large open wound on his right foot a testimony to his trauma: the motor-bike he and his mother used to escape Boko Haram crashed before they got here.

Voter cards

The independent electoral commission (INEC) hopes it can find a away around the law, which parliament at the end of last year ruled out modifying. Giving out ID cards in refugee camps was itself a departure from the normal rules.

Nearly half of all registered voters nationwide have yet to receive new voter identification cards, the commission said on Tuesday, raising questions about preparations for the vote with just a month to go.

On Monday, INEC set up tents on a large sandy field just inside the entrance of Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola to hand out voter cards for the insurgent-controlled area of Madagali. Each tent represented a different ward. For another insurgent-controlled area, Michika, five schools were designated for card retrieval. The hand-out will last until Saturday night.

To illustrate the size of the problem, in Adamawa state, five Boko Haram-controlled local authorities account for 356,680 voters.

At a table piled up with voter cards bound together, volunteers sorted them and read out names to those waiting.

But INEC has yet to figure out what to do on polling day.

“I don’t know how they will vote yet. We are waiting to hear,” an electoral commissioner said bluntly.

Hajaratu Tumba, a farmer, looks puzzled when asked about the coming election. She hadn’t given it much thought, she said.

“When they attacked my village, they killed the men and told the women they are going to convert us. I ran and ran and ran. I stayed in the bush for three days with no food or water,” she told Reuters.

“I came here with nothing. Just myself.”

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