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Electoral campaign posters are seen on Numan Road, ahead of Nigeria's presidential elections, in Yola, Nigeria, on Feb. 23.ESA ALEXANDER/Reuters

The deadly ambush of a Nigerian opposition candidate has stoked fears that violence across the country could influence the outcome of Saturday’s closely watched election, where a third-party candidate is mounting an unexpected challenge to the dominance of Nigeria’s two largest parties.

Unidentified gunmen attacked and killed Oyibo Chukwu, a Senate candidate in southeastern Nigeria, as he travelled back from a campaign event on Wednesday night. The gunmen then set fire to his car. Mr. Chukwu belonged to the Labour Party, a fringe party whose presidential candidate, Peter Obi, has shocked the political establishment by climbing to the top of opinion polls in recent weeks.

The killing, along with a spate of other attacks on candidates and campaigners, has added to the growing fear that the election will be tainted by political violence, which could discourage Nigerians from voting and could disrupt the election machinery or force shutdowns of voting stations. Lower voter turnout would damage the chances of maverick candidates such as Mr. Obi, who is popular among younger Nigerians.

Among the proliferating security threats are Islamist radical militias such as Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, bandit gangs in the northwest that have specialized in mass kidnappings, and secessionist groups in the southeast that the police have blamed for several deadly attacks on political campaigns, including the ambush of Mr. Chukwu.

“There is huge political violence,” Idayat Hassan, director of Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development, said in a recent online briefing.

“It has skyrocketed, and it has huge implications for the ability to conduct elections,” she said. “How do you convince Nigerians to come out and exercise their franchise if their lives cannot be secured?”

Mr. Obi called on law-enforcement agencies to ensure that voters can cast their ballots without intimidation. “We have witnessed with great concern the unwarranted and uncivilized attacks on our supporters,” he tweeted on Thursday. “The mindless bloodletting that occurs in the nation is beyond depressing.”

At least 41 dead in Nigeria after gunmen, vigilantes clash

Just hours before the ambush of the Labour Party candidate, Nigeria’s political parties and presidential candidates had signed a pledge to commit themselves to a peaceful election. Under the pledge, they promised to “maintain a peaceful environment before, during and after” the Saturday election, and to refrain from violence or incitement of violence against their opponents.

But on Thursday the political attacks continued. In the northern city of Kano, a mob armed with machetes and clubs assaulted supporters of presidential candidate Rabiu Kwankwaso, who is running fourth in most opinion polls. They injured several people and set cars ablaze. Police officials, fearing further violence, called an emergency meeting with the major political parties and ordered them to cancel their planned political rallies in Kano on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, police in Finland arrested Simon Ekpa, the leader of a southeastern Nigerian secessionist group who has called for an election boycott and was allegedly using social media to incite violence. He is a Finnish citizen of Nigerian origin.

“We’re holding this election in an atmosphere of insecurity that is more widespread and more generalized than in the past,” said Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria adviser at the International Crisis Group.

He noted the insurgencies in the northeast, banditry in the northwest and a sharp increase in violence in the southeast. “It’s very difficult to see how elections will run smoothly in those areas and what the turnout will be,” he told a briefing on Thursday.

In the country’s biggest city, Lagos, armoured vehicles with heavy machine guns were seen in the streets this week as the military expanded its presence. Nigeria plans to deploy more than 310,000 police officers on election day, along with 93,000 reinforcements from military and security agencies.

Five governments, including Canada’s, issued a statement on Thursday urging all Nigerians to “calm any tensions and avoid any violence in the periods before, during and after the elections.”

The statement – issued by the diplomatic missions of Canada, the United States, Japan, Australia and Norway – called on all political parties to “take a firm stand against violence and hate speech by their supporters.”

In the 12 months leading up to the election, Nigerian political party members and supporters were involved in more than 200 violent events, resulting in 94 reported fatalities, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S.-based research and mapping project.

Attacks against prospective candidates and party supporters “were a common occurrence during this period,” the ACLED said in an election report.

“Unidentified armed groups were responsible for at least half of all violence against party members in the run-up to the vote, suggesting that the perpetrators of this violence can often act with impunity,” it said. Party militias and criminal gangs, sometimes operating at the behest of local elites, engage in violence to “suppress opponents” and “depress voter turnout” to maximize the vote shares of their preferred candidates, the report said.

It also documented at least 44 attacks on offices and staff of Nigeria’s national electoral commission over the past two years, including arson attacks and shootings. Electoral officers have suffered abductions and assassinations, the ACLED said.

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