ISUOFIA, Nigeria: Voters queue to vote at a polling station during the Anambra State governorship election at Isuofia, southeast Nigeria yesterday. - AFP

LAGOS: Nigeria's restive southeastern state of Anambra voted for a new governor yesterday in a ballot seen as a test of the electoral system less than 18 months before presidential polls. More than 30,000 police have been dispatched to secure Anambra after a string of attacks in the southeast blamed on separatists from the Indigenous People of Biafra or IPOB who agitate for an independent state for the local Igbo people.

Elections in Africa's most populous state are often marred by fraud claims and violence, and analysts see Anambra's ballot and voter turnout as one barometer of confidence in the independent national electoral commission's readiness for the national ballot to replace President Muhammadu Buhari in 2023. The election has developed into a tight race between former central governor Charles Chukwuma Soludo, with local powerhouse party All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA), and the candidates from Buhari's ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party and the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP).

"Security is about securing people. As you can see I am here, I am not bothered," said businessman Chukuma Emmanuel Afoekezie, lining up with dozens of others to vote in a rural polling station outside Anambra capital Awka. Turnout was steady at two polls visited early by AFP though there were some delays in voting caused by facial and fingerprint recognition technology, local monitors said. Candidates and political parties signed a peace deal this week to accept the results of the vote if it is judged free and fair, and to avoid any violent clashes among their supporters.

Possible challenges

In an early sign of possible challenges, the office of the incumbent Anambra state governor, who is from the APGA, accused APC party members of working with corrupt officials to rig the results in some of the state's districts. A local APC spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment. Campaigning has been low-key after attacks blamed on IPOB or "unknown gunmen" and repeated shutdown protests by the separatist movement over the arrest of their leader.

Many residents in Anambra say they have been worried about violence on voting day. On Thursday, IPOB cancelled a planned sit-in protest over the election period and urged people to exercise their vote. Despite the cancelled order, many markets and shops in central Awka remained shut on Friday with traders saying people were staying at home because they were still worried about possible violence. "It's because of security," said Joseph, whose garage and supermarket were closed on Friday.

With political infighting heating up before the 2023 vote to replace Buhari, Anambra has emerged as key battleground with the ruling APC looking to consolidate in the southeast. APC managed to secure two state governments through a defection of one governor and a court ruling for another. Separatist agitation is only one of the major security challenges facing Nigeria, where the army is also battling heavily armed criminal gangs in the northwest and a grinding 12-year-long jihadist insurgency in the northeast that has killed 40,000 people. - AFP