YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon –  93.5 million people are going to the polls today in Nigeria, amid warnings from Catholic leaders that chronic violence in Africa’s most populous nation is part of a plan to skew the results of the election in the direction of the “Islamization” and “Fulanization” of the country.

“The killings continue in such large numbers and over such a vast area (now the entire north, middle belt and south east) that we are clearly not talking about spontaneous outbreaks of violence,” said Johan Viljoen, a South Africa-based observer of the African Catholic scene.

Viljoen is Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“Nigerians in the southeast have long been saying that it is an orchestrated campaign to Islamize the country,” he said.

Nigeria is the largest mixed Muslim/Christian nation in the world, with the Muslim population concentrated in the country’s north while the south is majority Christian.

“From Anambra (in southern Nigeria) we are receiving reports of gunshots being fired in forests by militias to intimidate people not to vote. The net result of the escalating violence will be that votes in the southeast will be greatly undercounted,” Viljoen told Crux.

“If the southeast is effectively disenfranchised, they (the Muslim North) are the ones that gain,” he said.

Nigerians are set today to select the country’s next president and vice president, as well as 468 federal legislators. The stakes are high, as Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa and the sixth-largest in the world, with UN projections suggesting it will surpass the United States for third place by 2050.

Voting is occurring amid escalating violence, with at least seven people killed in separate attacks in Benue State in south-central Nigeria just 48 hours ahead of polls opening.

In a February 17 statement, Nigeria’s Catholic bishops put the situation in graphic terms.

“Boko Haram insurgents, herdsmen militia, bandits, and the so-called unknown gunmen have continued to unleash terror in different parts of the country,” the bishops said. “Some communities have been sacked and their inhabitants displaced as a result of the activities of some criminals and some government security agents. Hundreds of lives have been lost in very brutal circumstances and many more have been maimed.”

“Some of our Church personnel have been victims of abduction and killing. Kidnapping for ransom is on the increase, such that nowhere seems safe. Highways, homes, and even the sacred precincts of worshipping centers are not spared,” the bishops’ statement said.

According to the Armed Conflict Location Event Dataset, 10,600 violent deaths in Nigeria were recorded in 2022.

Viljoen insisted the violence is not random.

“Nigerians in the southeast have long been saying that it is an orchestrated campaign to Islamize the country. To date, no perpetrators have been arrested or prosecuted – not even for the killing of Deborah Samuel in Sokoto, despite the identities of the perpetrators being clearly visible on video clips,” he said, referring to the murder of a college student in May who’d been accused of posting blasphemous comments about Muhammed on a WhatsApp group. A mob of students hurled stones at her before placing rubber tires on her body and burning it beyond recognition.

“All of this seems to vindicate the perceptions of those in the South East,” Viljoen said.

“I personally think that the attacks are caused by a “third force” working on the ‘Islamization’ and ‘Fulanization’ agenda. In any situation of violence, the first question one must ask is: ‘Who profits? Who gains?’” he said.

Viljoen said the current spate of attacks was already having an impact on Nigeria’s elections, with a separatist group in the country’s south called “Indigenous People of Biafra,” calling on people to “stay at home and not to vote.”

Viljoen said that when outgoing President President Mohamadu Buhari was elected in 2015, Nigerians believed he would focus on security, yet in reality violence and terrorism has worsened.

Today, the country has to deal with the militant group Islamic State West Africa Province, ISWAP. Battles between herders and farmers in the Middle Belt have become common, and a secessionist conflict rages on in the southeast.

The various candidates to the presidential election have promised to deal decisively with the country’s insecurity, but Viljoen believes these are all empty promises from politicians seeking to deceive voters.

“Like politicians everywhere, candidates are promising heaven and earth – all have promised to end the violence, build houses, make healthcare available, fight corruption. But there are no concrete plans on the table to deal with the insecurity from any candidate. Besides, any voter in any country who still believes any promise made by any politician is, at best, astonishingly naïve,” he told Crux.

He dismissed a peace pact signed by the candidates as sounding very much like unfulfilled promises they have made “to end insecurity and fight corruption.”

The bishops in their Feb. 17 statement made a case for good governance, predicated on citizen participation in the electoral process.

“In the face of the daunting challenges facing our nation, we should not give in to hopelessness and despair, or compromise our values in such a manner as to come up with leaders who are neither intended by God nor truly elected by the people. We, as citizens, must learn to make the right choices for good governance to thrive and be sustained,” they said.

The prelates urged the electorate to “reject evil, greater or lesser,” and to wisely choose good and capable candidates at all levels.

“Our votes are precious; we must use them well,” they said, and called on people to “to come out en masse to vote for God-fearing, honest, vibrant, and transparent leaders for a better Nigeria.”