Pro-Biafran group calls off Nigeria election boycott

A pro-Biafran separatist group said on Friday it had lifted its call for a boycott of Nigeria's presidential and parliamentary elections this weekend.

The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) wants independence for the Igbo people who are in the majority in southeast Nigeria, and had urged its supporters not to vote on Saturday.

IPOB's self-styled "supreme leader", former London estate agent Nnamdi Kanu, has said the action was part of a wider call for a referendum on sovereignty.

But he tweeted late on Thursday that the boycott was lifted as all the group's "preconditions and terms have been met, signed, sealed and delivered".

Kanu, who is in his 40s, disappeared after an army raid on his home in the southeastern city of Umuahia in September 2017. He re-emerged in Israel in October last year and is now in Britain.

The IPOB high command confirmed the decision in a statement on Friday, but neither it nor Kanu gave further details, although it promised to publish more details at a later date.

That will likely fuel speculation of a deal between the group and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, who stood to lose out if voters stayed at home.

The five states in southeast Nigeria have just over 10 million registered voters and have long been a stronghold for the PDP.

The party's presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar has chosen an Igbo politician, Peter Obi, as his running mate.

Abubakar, a former vice-president, has also said he is in favour of restructuring Nigeria's federal system, by devolving more power from the centre.

The southeast has long complained it has been marginalised by successive governments and military regimes since the end of the civil war in 1970.

The conflict, which killed more than one million people, started after a unilateral declaration of an independent republic of Biafra in 1967.

No Igbo politician has held high office since 1983, when Alex Ekwueme was Shehu Shagari's vice-president.

Shagari and Ekwueme were ousted in a coup led by army general Muhammadu Buhari, who has been civilian president since 2015.

 Divided opinion 

On the streets of Umuahia, the capital of Abia state, opinion was divided between those who wanted to boycott the election and those who were keen to vote.

"Yes, I want to choose our leaders," said Jessie Kalu from behind her fruit and vegetable stall, prompting her neighbour to shout: "Nobody is going to vote!"

Emmanuel Odiwonma, a market trader in Aba, said people in the region had been treated as "second-class citizens" and was happy to stay at home.

But pensioner Edmond Okoli, said: "If you boycott the election, you're encouraging the person you don't want to win, it is stupid"

The arrest of Nnamdi Kanu on treason charges in October 2015 sparked a wave of street protests across the southeast, leading to clashes with the security forces.

The region has been largely calm in the run-up to the election, but there has been a noticeable increase in military and police checkpoints, AFP correspondents said.

In recent days, hundreds of young IPOB supporters marched in several towns, calling on local people to stand up against the federal government.

Two electoral commission offices in Abia and neighbouring Anambra state caught fire this month, destroying election materials. But there has been no claim of responsibility.

Security analyst Don Okereke said to a large extent President Muhammadu Buhari was unpopular in the southeast because it is a mainly Christian area and many Igbos are businesspeople.

Nigeria is emerging slowly from recession caused partly by a slump in global oil prices.

"People want business to pick up again, they attribute the economic slowdown and the high level of unemployment to Buhari's administration," he added, predicting a high turnout.

"We'll likely see a high level of participation."

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