A prominent Muslim cleric and four others have been arrested in northwest Nigeria for defacing the president's campaign poster, police said Wednesday, a sign of the rising tensions ahead of next month's elections in Africa's most populous nation.
Abubakar Jibril was arrested Monday evening in the city of Sokoto for "inciting public disturbance," said federal police spokesman Olusola Amore. But some civil groups argue that the arrest is politically motivated.
Amore said that the cleric and four "collaborators" were caught Monday evening defacing the posters of President Goodluck Jonathan and his running mate.
"I'm free to post my poster and you are free to post (yours). You are not free to deface mine, just because you don't like my face," Amore said. "All you need to do is to go and vote against me."
Civil Rights Congress in Nigeria said it has received reports of a series of acts of intimidation and harassment by the police ahead of April polls when Nigerians will choose a new president, new governors and new members of the national assembly.
"Nigerian security forces are becoming a party of interest in the forthcoming elections," said Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress in Nigeria. "They are behaving as an armed wing in the ruling party."
About a month ago, a man was jailed after making a Facebook comment that put a curse on a governor belonging to the ruling party in northern Nigeria. He was quietly released a few days later.
But Jibril's case is more sensitive as he has a large following. His mosque is located in the city of Sokoto which is home to the Sultan of Sokoto, Nigerian Muslims' spiritual head.
The police says that Jibril and the four others were moved from Sokoto to the police headquarters in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja Tuesday "because of the nature of the offense" and so that the local police in Sokoto would not be accused of bias.
"Detaining him in Sokoto could perhaps be a danger to the government," Sani said.
The arrest comes ahead of the elections, which already have highlighted the oil-rich nation's religious and ethnic divides.
Jonathan, a Christian from the south, is running for president even though some northerners believe it is a northerner's turn to rule. He took over last May from President Umaru Yar'Adua, who died in his first term of office. Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north, had been expected to serve two terms.