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Nigeria Elections: Boko Haram Violence, Ballot Chaos Threaten Vote

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Supporters of the main Nigerian opposition All Progressive Congress (APC) party attend a rally in Kaduna on Monday. FLORIAN PLAUCHEUR / AFP - Getty Images

A relentless campaign of slaughter by Boko Haram militants coupled with widespread administrative chaos threatens to leave tens of millions of Nigerians unable to vote in the country's looming general election.

The February 14 ballot will be the first election in the young democracy's history in which polls suggest a close race between two rival candidates. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, the continent's largest economy, and a key regional ally for the U.S.

But spiralling violenceby the Islamist sect Boko Haram has forced upward of one million people to flee their homes and rendered a huge swath of the northeast almost uninhabitable.

"We have the situation where people are going to have to think hard about whether they want to vote if the person in line behind them is going to blow themselves up"

Compounding that, Nigeria's top security official revealed earlier this month that half of the electorate — some 30 million people — had yet to receive their polling cards just three weeks before the ballot.

Sambo Dasuki, national security adviser to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, said he had recently urged Nigeria’s electoral commission INEC to postpone the vote.

"They keep assuring us everybody will have his card, but I doubt it," Dasuki told an audience at London's Chatham House think tank. "If in one year you have distributed 30 million [cards] I don’t see how you will distribute another 30 million in two weeks."

Who Are Nigeria's Boko Haram? 0:43

Recent suicide bombings in relatively safe areas such as the city of Maiduguri could lower the turnout further, according to Dr. Peter Pham at the Atlantic Council, with civilians fearful of attacks on polling stations by the fiercely anti-democratic Boko Haram.

"You are looking at a situation were at least 1.5 million people could be disenfranchised because of the violence," said Pham, who is director of the council's Africa Center. "We have the situation where people are going to have to think hard about whether they want to vote if the person in line behind them is going to blow themselves up."

Some of the ruling People's Democratic Party's critics see calls to postpone the vote as a sign President Jonathan has been shaken by the apparent closeness of the contest. "They are clearly scared," said Ahmed Zanna, an opposition lawmaker for Borno state where much of the violence has been concentrated. "Why else would he say these comments?"

In a bid to allow the internally displaced people (IDP) the opportunity to vote, electoral officials are planning to set up temporary ballot boxes at the state-run camps where thousands have sought refuge from the violence.

Boko Haram Reportedly Massacres 2,000 Civilians in Baga, Nigeria 0:45

Zanna has been in talks with the electoral commission over the temporary polling stations and is confident they will work. But the measures could risk putting added strain on the body, according to Elizabeth Donnelly, assistant head of the Africa program at Chatham House.

"Logistically, with everything INEC has to do, is it realistic to expect them to be able to deliver this as well?" she told NBC News. "It may not have the capacity to do this."

If there are questions over the validity of the vote, this could cause problems down the line in a country with a history of vote-rigging allegations and post-electoral violence. "The perception of legitimacy is really important, especially if the result is close," Donnelly added.

Since Nigeria returned to democracy from dictatorship in 1999, the PDP has ruled without serious challenge. This year the smaller parities have clubbed together to form the All Progressives Congress (APC). Their leader is Muhammad Buhari, a former military dictator of Nigeria who is promising to stamp out corruption and tackle Boko Haram, two issues Jonathan has been criticized for failing to address.

John Kerry Describes Boko Haram as Evil, Threatening 0:33

Nigeria's 173 million people are split almost evenly between Christians in the oil-wealthy and Westernized south and Muslims in the underdeveloped north.

Jonathan, a Christian popular in the south, has lost scores of lawmakers who have defected to the party of Buhari, a Muslim who is expected to poll strongly in the north.

Sen. Zanna, one of the defectors, is bullish in his assessment that Buhari is exactly what is country needs. "He is a no-nonsense person who will not tolerate Boko Haram," he said.

NBC News made repeated attempts to contact Jonathan's spokesman without response.