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A tailor's shop displays a poster bearing a picture of candidate of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) President Mohammadu Buhari in Daura, Katsina State, Nigeria, on Feb. 15, 2019, one day ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections.PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

When a video was posted on Nigerian social media, claiming that President Muhammadu Buhari had died and been replaced by a Sudanese clone named Jubril, some people dismissed it as a joke – but the video was viewed more than 500,000 times.

In a country where disinformation flourishes, the President was forced to deny that he was a clone.

Now there are fears that similar forms of propaganda and conspiracy theories will taint Nigeria’s election. The vote, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed hours before polls were set to open. It is a major test for the emerging democracy in Africa’s most populous country and the disinformation operations are just one of the threats to the fairness of the election in which a record 84 million people are eligible to vote.

Mr. Buhari is locked in a tight race with his main challenger, the wealthy business tycoon and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. The outcome is unpredictable and likely to be disputed, and the campaign has already been riddled with allegations of vote-rigging, vote-buying and dubious voter registration data.

Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom group, has cited several examples of how the organizations of the two main candidates have spread false news. An adviser to Mr. Buhari posted a photo of a huge religious gathering, claiming that it showed the President’s supporters at an election rally. Supporters of Mr. Abubakar posted a fake photo of U.S. President Donald Trump brandishing a portrait of the Nigerian candidate.

The dissemination of false news has become easier in Nigeria because of the massive popularity of WhatsApp, a messaging app that allows the encrypted distribution of claims that are not sourced, which can then be forwarded rapidly to many other people without any outside scrutiny.

“Nigeria has never before been affected by rumours, fake news and propaganda to this degree ahead of an election,” said Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk of Reporters Without Borders, in a report on Friday. “Even more disturbingly, the political parties and their supporters have abetted this unprecedented pollution of the public debate.”

Nigeria was under military rule until two decades ago and many of its recent elections have been marred by vote-rigging suspicions. But its last election, in 2015, was widely hailed as a victory for democracy. For the first time, there was a peaceful and democratic transition of power, with former president Goodluck Jonathan accepting that Mr. Buhari had defeated him.

Since then, however, many Nigerians have been frustrated by the lack of progress under Mr. Buhari, a 76-year-old former military general who has failed to defeat the country’s widespread corruption or the deadly insurgency in the northeast of the country.

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Supporters of the presidential candidate of the Nigerian main opposition People Democratic Party (PDP) Atiku Abubakar sit in front of local campaign office in Port Harcourt, southern Nigeria, on Feb. 15, 2019.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

He also presided over a lengthy economic recession, followed by a year of sluggish growth. Despite Nigeria’s oil wealth, most of its 190 million citizens live in poverty.

Mr. Buhari has been absent from Nigeria for many months at a time, seeking medical treatment in Britain. And he has been criticized by the United Nations for his recent decision to sack Nigeria’s chief justice, who could have been central in adjudicating any election disputes.

Mr. Buhari and his main challenger, Mr. Abubakar, were political allies until two years ago. There are few ideological differences between them, and both are Muslims from northern Nigeria, suggesting that the election could be decided by other factors, including the disinformation wars.

Mr. Abubakar, 72, might not have any huge popularity of his own, but he is backed by the former governing party, the People’s Democratic Party, and could benefit from disenchantment with Mr. Buhari’s government. He has pledged to stop the northern insurgency and galvanize the economy.

But while Mr. Buhari has a reputation for personal honesty, Mr. Abubakar’s vast wealth has brought attention to past allegations of corruption against him. In 2010, for example, a U.S. Senate report alleged that he and one of his wives had transferred US$40-million in “suspect funds” – including alleged proceeds of bribery – to U.S. bank accounts. He is widely reported to be under a U.S. entry ban because of the corruption allegations.

Mr. Abubakar has denied the allegations and has never been indicted. He recently travelled to Washington to show that he wasn’t barred from entering the United States. But the Reuters and Bloomberg news agencies have reported the U.S. government allowed the trip after pressure from Mr. Abubakar’s lobbyists, who requested the granting of a temporary exemption from the U.S. entry ban.

With a report from Reuters

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