A senatorial candidate from Nigeria’s opposition Labour Party has been killed by unknown gunmen in southeastern Enugu State ahead of the country’s national election, according to police and a party official.
Oyibo Chukwu was killed on Wednesday night after being ambushed as he was travelling back from a campaign event, according to Chinwuba Ngwu, the Labour Party chairman from the Enugu South local government area.
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“It is a devastating development for us. We are suspecting political assassination because he was favoured to win the election,” Ngwu said.
Police confirmed the killing, which came hours after the parties and presidential candidates signed a pledge to support a peaceful electoral process ahead of Saturday’s general election.
A spokesperson for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Enugu said it had the power under electoral law to suspend a poll in the event of a candidate’s death and set a new date within 14 days. However, he said processes had to be followed and no decision had been made yet in this case.
Reporting from the site of the attack, Al Jazeera correspondent Haru Mutasa said Chukwu was travelling in a convoy when armed men opened fire on it, killing the politician.
According to Mutasa, the site of the attack – a narrow road along a wall – turned black with soot as the Labour Party’s supporters set fire to the attacked vehicle, which was later removed by police.
A ‘nervous mood’
“It is a place where there are many shops, but a lot of the shops are shut because people say they are nervous and not sure what’s going to happen next,” Mutasa said.
Nigerians are due to elect their next president and lawmakers against a chaotic backdrop of armed conflict in the northeast, high levels of violent crime across the country, and shortages of cash, fuel and electricity.
“When you ask people about the mood here ahead of the elections, they will say things are tense, some of them are nervous and say try not to leave the city centre, try not to drive out of town because you could get kidnapped.”
President Muhammadu Buhari is stepping down after serving the maximum two terms allowed by the Constitution, and the three-man race to succeed him is seen as the most unpredictable contest in recent Nigerian history.
Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation, biggest economy and top oil producer – switched from army rule to democracy in 1999, but its elections have long been plagued by violence and fraud.
‘Widespread violence and insecurity’
Speaking to Al Jazeera, senior Nigerian security analyst Bulama Bukarti identified three different parts of the country where three major armed groups have been carrying out violent crimes and extortions.
“They are in the southeast, where this attack happened, in the northeast, and in the north-central region – and insecurity is widespread [because of these three groups], which is something we have never seen in the history of the country,” he said. “Fake news, conspiracy theories and false information on social media is likely to exacerbate things and lead to communal tension, especially because the three major presidential candidates come from three major ethnic groups and three different parts of Nigeria.”
“Unscrupulous politicians sometimes used these kinds of fault lines to ignite one community against the other,” Bukarti added, referring to the recent election-related violence in the country.
The main candidates for president are former Lagos Governor Bola Tinubu, 70, who represents the ruling party; former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 76, who represents the main opposition party that was in power from 1999 to 2015; and Peter Obi, 61, an anti-establishment candidate popular among many young voters.
Obi, an ethnic Igbo, is running on the Labour Party ticket. He is particularly popular in the Igbo heartland in southeastern Nigeria, which includes Enugu State, and this may have boosted the lesser-known party’s profile in the region.
US President Joe Biden earlier called for a peaceful, transparent election, urging parties and candidates to accept the results when they are published by INEC.
“All Nigerians deserve this chance to choose their future — freely and fairly,” Biden said in a statement. “While the United States does not support any single candidate or party, we strongly support a peaceful and transparent process that reflects the will of the people of Nigeria.”