By Julia Payne
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria has made an effort to clean up voter registration for elections next February, but holding a credible poll is a daunting prospect amid chaotic distribution of ballot cards and an Islamist insurgency that could disenfranchise millions.
Nigeria's last presidential poll in 2011 was deemed the cleanest to date in Africa's most populous nation, but since previous elections had been characterized by ballot box snatching, intimidation of voters by armed thugs and completely made up results, this was a modest achievement.
The election will test whether Africa's biggest economy can improve its patchy record on democracy.
"Looking at overt, simple forms of election manipulation, in 2011, there was a decrease and we think ... that trajectory is going to continue," Thomas Hansen of Control Risks says.
Yet questions remain over whether the coming elections will actually continue that trajectory.
The race largely between President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari on Feb. 14 is expected to be Nigeria's most closely fought since the end of military rule in 1999, which will encourage both to play dirty.
A violent Islamist Boko Haram insurgency that has killed thousands will make voting almost impossible in swathes of the northeast, possibly disenfranchising millions.
New technology, such as biometric I.D. card readers, should make ballot box stuffing harder. But glitches have caused hundreds of thousands of voters to be struck out.
TEST FOR NIGERIA
The election must be seen as credible to avoid violence by the losing side. In 2011, 800 people were killed after Buhari lost to Jonathan.
The growing polarization of Nigeria between the largely Muslim north and majority Christian parts of the south, and ugly rhetoric on both sides, send ominous signals.
"The demonization of the opponent, the threats of violence, the accusations of plans to rig the election, the whipping up of ethnic and religious sentiments. The clouds are indeed dark," wrote Azuka Onwuka in The Punch daily this month.
When Jonathan ran in 2011, northern elites said he scrapped an unwritten deal to rotate power between north and south every two terms. Amid the heightened tension, parties could use minor irregularities as an excuse to whip up violence.
Three states in the northeast under a state of emergency will be too dangerous for most election observers.
There are more than a million Boko Haram displaced who cannot vote unless the law changes to allow them to do so away from home, a move Parliament is considering.
Borno electoral commissioner Tukur Saad said the state had registered 11 camps for refugees, but many more were unregistered in schools and mosques.
Since many displaced did not take their voting cards when they fled, they may be unable to vote.
"Creating polling units in camps does not mean people will not be disenfranchised," said Idayat Hassan of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development. "How many will actually have identification of any form with them?"
Insecurity will prevent voting in many places. Most of Borno's 1.76 million voters won't be able to vote.
"It's a very tricky situation ... We may only be able to hold the vote for ... 600,000 voters," Saad told Reuters.
The electoral commission has culled duplicates and fake names from the register in order to issue biometric voter cards, in a bid to curb practices like ballot box stuffing.
But 11.5 million people were, in some cases wrongly, struck off the list this year, electoral commission (INEC) spokesman Kayode Idowu said, owing to data collection problems.
The total voter count fell to 58.9 million, from 70.4 million at the end of 2013. Voters wrongfully removed will have to queue up to re-register. Some won't bother.
The fact that many were in strongholds of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), such as Lagos, rather than those of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), angered the opposition.
"I am worried this is the beginning of a plan to
disenfranchise Lagosians," Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola, himself stuck off the list, said last month.
Another worry for election observers is whether the card readers will be deployed in time and if they will work.
INEC says it anticipates the inevitable failure of some readers so extras will be supplied. The readers will run on batteries to escape frequent power cuts.
Idowu said that if a machine fails and a replacement is unavailable, the election will be delayed in that area. That would draw out an already fraught process.
In the Niger Delta, Jonathan's home region, a history of political thuggery looks set to continue.
Two security sources say large amounts of weapons are being imported into the region. In past polls, militias carved out areas where they controlled voting. That could happen again.
(Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Lagos; Editing by Tim Cocks and Giles Elgood)