GUSAU, Nigeria (Reuters) - Bandits spraying villages with bullets, killing residents and setting buildings ablaze. Rampant cattle rustling and clashes between farmers and herders. Mass kidnappings for ransom.
These are among the litany of challenges confronting Sa'idu Ahmad, an electoral officer tasked with organising voting for Nigeria's next president and members of parliament on Feb. 25 in the northwestern state of Zamfara.
The violence is so bad in some areas that 606 polling centres serving 287,373 voters - nearly a fifth of the state's total - have been identified as "not reachable" and arrangements are being made for people to vote in larger towns, Ahmad said.
"We can't build a separate polling unit for each person," he said, adding that he hoped local leaders or business people would hire trucks to help votes reach safer polling stations.
Nigeria's election next week marks nearly a quarter century of democracy in Africa's most populous nation, which in previous decades had become a byword for coups and military misrule.
In some ways, it stands to be one of its most credible polls yet, thanks to an increasingly professional electoral commission and measures to curb fraudulent practices rife in many previous elections, such as serial voting and ballot-box stuffing.
A law enacted last year provides for electronic voting machines and smart card readers to confirm voters are registered in a central database. Results from any polling centre where the ballots cast exceed the registered voters will not be counted.
But in places where armed groups have killed, robbed and displaced thousands, the violence risks casting doubt on the credibility of the vote and, in the areas hit worst by insecurity, on whether it can take place at all.
Analysts warn that the rampant violence will need to be dealt with quickly by whoever replaces President Muhammadu Buhari to pull Nigeria back from the brink of becoming a failed state that could destabilise the wider West African region.
When Buhari came to power in 2015 in what was judged to be Nigeria's fairest election to date, many hoped the retired major general would crack down on armed groups, just as he had in the early 1980s as the country's military head of state.
Instead, violence that had mostly been confined to the northeast has spread, leaving swathes of Nigeria outside the control of its stretched security forces and forcing thousands of farmers to abandon their crops in the midst of a food crisis.
Militants behind a 13-year-old Islamist insurgency in the northeast are threatening to kill those who vote in areas they control. Industrial-scale banditry and kidnapping have displaced thousands from their voting constituencies in the northwest.
In December, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said its staff and facilities had been attacked at least 50 times since the last poll in 2019, mostly in the rebellious southeast, where a motley crowd of secessionist militants, oil thieves, pirates and armed gangs allied to politicians roam.
"Security is one of the main promises that Buhari's victory was based on. People hoped he was going to use (his military) experience to solve this problem," said Malik Samuel, Abuja-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
"That has not come to fruition ... the result is there for everyone to see."
The election pits former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) against Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi, who defected from the PDP to the smaller Labour Party.
At least three opinion polls show Obi to be ahead, but much may depend on voter turnout. The latest Stears poll put Obi ahead but suggested Tinubu would win if turnout was low.
All three main candidates have promised to tackle insecurity with more personnel and better technology, while being thin on details. Abubakar and Obi have also touted dialogue with militant groups.
'THREATENED BY BANDITS'
When gunmen on motorbikes raided Nasarawa Mai Fara, a village on a sandy outcrop surrounded by scorched hills on the edge of the Sahara desert, Ahmadu Garkuwa and his neighbours fought back with homemade hunting rifles.
The bandits looted granaries, stole cows and money, gunned down 37 people - including five of Garkuwa's male relatives - and abducted 16 others, the 27-year-old farmer said. Garkuwa said he managed to flee on foot, under fire from the assailants.
Since then, he has lived with relatives in Gusau, the main city in Zamfara, whose sand-strewn streets dotted with sparse trees have been relatively free of violence.
But food is so scarce he said he often has to forage with his two wives for leaves to make soup for their eight children.
Garkuwa is one of many people who say they cannot risk returning to their home towns to cast their ballots where they are registered to vote.
"My life has been threatened by bandits. I hardly escaped them, and they are still looking for me. How can I go and vote?" he said outside the windowless, concrete bungalow where he now lives, smoke from a charcoal fire wafting over his face.
Nigeria has 3.2 million internally displaced, according to government data.
The electoral commission has promised they will be able to vote but concedes it has only made provisions for those in designated camps, which are mostly in the northeast.
Many of the displaced stay in the homes of relatives or volunteers - authorities do not have exact figures - and will have to brave going home, or sit this election out.
Many of the 200,000 people displaced by attacks in northern Kaduna state over the past six years may not be able to vote, for example, the International Crisis Group said in a report this month.
Neither will many of the 1.8 million displaced since 2018 in north-central Benue state, where feuds between farmers and herder persist, the think-tank said.
INEC said on Monday that 240 polling centres will not be used because of insecurity, mostly in northeastern Taraba state, where Islamists have carried out attacks, and southeastern Imo state, a hotbed of separatist and gang violence.
In Zamfara, the police say there has been recent progress in arresting gang leaders and disrupting weapons supplies.
"You cannot wipe out insecurity 100%," Zamfara police spokesman Mohammed Shehu said. "But I want to assure you the security forces will ensure peace and security around all the polling units so that the public can vote without fear."
(Ahmed Kingimi reported from Gusau and Tim Cocks from Johannesburg; Additional reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe in Lagos; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and David Clarke)