The change had been swift. From an early apprehension that peaked following the postponement of the National Assembly polls and its subsequent acclaim as one of Africa’s best in years, according to foreign observers, the 2011 elections have gained rapidly rising reputation in just weeks.
Now, after two polls that earned it praise, the exercise, in its final lap, faces the prospect of losing the bulk of its workforce – the youth corps members – who have threatened to boycott the governorship and state assembly elections scheduled for Tuesday following last week’s riots in which many of them were targeted in some northern states.
For most of last week, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) played down the possibility of the withdrawal, and officials sought to de-emphasize its impact on the local elections.
“The chairman has said the commission is doing all it can to make sure, if there are shortfall in manpower, they will be made up for,” said Kayode Idowu, a spokesperson of the commission on Friday, a day after a televised press conference where the chairman, Attahiru Jega, displayed similar optimism.
The electoral body maintained that besides Kaduna and Bauchi states, where elections have been moved by two days for security concerns, it does not expect the exercise to be marred by shortage of personnel in the other states where there had been violence.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Jega himself, said the commission had trained more hands than needed for the elections and would deploy the extra ad hoc staff to fill in at locations without sufficient electoral officials. He said while the commission would be hopeful about the participation of corps members in the elections for the remaining states on Tuesday, provisions were however made for alternative personnel.
“Our hope is that many of them (corps members) will recognize what these people want to achieve. They want to scuttle the effort that we have made in the past elections,” he said in condemnation of the violence that followed the outcome of the presidential election, dismissing reports that members of the corps had decided to withdraw their services as electoral officers.
NYSC officials too have denied corps members were pulling out and said the situation would be clearer after a tour of the affected states by the director general, Mahara Tsiga.
As at Friday evening, the deputy director, Public Affairs, Chinwe Ojukwu, told NEXT by phone that a position was being expected from Mr Tsiga.
Beneath the public façade however, officials speaking confidentially, say the speculated boycott of the exercise by the corps members has spawned mounting concerns within the leadership of the INEC and the NYSC.
“With what is going on, we all hope things will be fine, but naturally they may not be the same again as with the other elections,” a staff of the electoral body said.
A Kaduna-based group, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), also on Friday, said the total number of deaths has surpassed 200 while the wounded passed 500.
“In Kaduna alone, we have more than 20 deaths,” Shehu Sani, executive director of the group told NEXT by phone.
No specific figures could be obtained of the actual number of corps members killed or injured in the crisis, as authorities appear keen on keeping public passion within control. The NYSC spokesperson said only Mr Tsiga, who could not be reached Friday, can give the actual numbers, if at all there was any. Rights groups such as CRC, said it is challenging to ascertain which victim was a corps member and which was not.
Earlier reports say four died in Bauchi State, which is one of the worst-hit states. In Kano State, although deaths of corps members could not be confirmed, serving members have narrated at least two incidents where rioters attacked their lodges before they were rescued by armed soldiers.
Officials say there are worries the impact of the attacks may transcend the northern region where it originated and may be felt elsewhere, as anxious parents dissuade their wards from taking a role in the remaining elections.
“Many people have travelled and don’t plan to come back for the election,” said Nty Ben, a serving member in Osun State. The state is reportedly calm, yet some corps members are apprehensive about the final elections expected to be more passionate and have left on the orders of their parents.
Accused of aiding election rigging by their attackers, and coming after the Suleja bombing the killed at least 10 of their colleagues, the recent violence has been particularly hard on the youth corps members who have been lavishly praised by foreign election observers.
After the presidential election, the European Union said as electoral officers, the corps members performed their duties with “courage and to the best of their capacity.” The Commonwealth said they showed “dedication and courage that helped deliver a transparent process, often in difficult conditions. They are a source of pride and hope for Nigeria,” the group said.
The National Democratic Institute applauded the corps members for their “dedication and neutrality” while the International Republican Institute commended them for their “dedication and hard work.”
Despite the assurances that all is well, nothing illustrates the electoral body’s frustration with the development as Mr Jega’s remark that the commission will understand if the horror-stricken corps members stay off the exercise.
“Obviously people in that kind of situation should be afraid,” he said. “If some of them are scared enough to stay away, we will understand. If they don’t come out, we will understand.” Mr Jega said while INEC feels their pains and sympathizes with the families affected; it will “understand should they choose not to participate again.”