The Threat of Violence in Nigeria’s 2019 Elections

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(This article summarizes the US Institute of Peace’s Special Report for September 2018 with additional information sourced from news articles cited below)

The 2019 Elections

Nigeria is scheduled to hold elections on 16th February 2019 to elect the President and National Assembly. This will be the sixth four-year federal election since the end of military rule in 1999 and the return to constitutional democracy. The presidential election operates according to a run-off voting system. To be elected in the first round of voting a candidate would need 50 percent of the popular national vote as well as over 25 percent of the vote in two thirds of the states. If no candidate secures the required popular-and-state vote in the first round of voting, then the two candidates with the most votes face each other in the second round of voting, and the candidate with a simple majority is elected president. Meanwhile the National Assembly is elected is using a first-past-the-post system.

The current governing party in Nigeria is the All Progressive Congress (APC), whose leader, the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, is standing for re-election. The main opposition parties are the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and African Democratic Congress (ADC). Thirty-nine registered political forces, including the main opposition People's Democratic Party (PDP) and a splinter group from within the ruling party, signed an agreement late on Monday 9th July 2018 to form the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP).

Fifteen states have or are scheduled to conduct local government elections in 2018 or 2019. Twenty-nine of Nigeria’s thirty-six states are also due to hold gubernatorial elections two weeks after the national elections.

Factors in Creating the Risk of Violence

Social and economic inequalities, ethnic and religious divisions, and structural weaknesses such as corruption and weak state capacity, remain prevalent across Nigeria and contribute to the risk of electoral violence. Many conventional risks of violence exist, including the decision by candidate to accept or refuse the results, the abuse of state power to unfairly favour incumbent politicians, and the ease with which young people can be mobilized towards violence. However, causes of violence are not simplistic and the particularity and context of electoral violence is important. This particularity also means that violence is not inevitable.

The conduct of Local Government Elections may, in some cases, increase the prospects for election violence in the General Election. Generally speaking, local elections are seen as charades, a perception which weakens trust in the democratic process and the institutions. Furthermore, in some cases this can lead to the prospect of violence during national elections as an overflow of frustration with the legitimacy or lack thereof of local government.

All of this feeds into a broader narrative of mistrust in state institutions. The critical factor in determining whether violence is incidental or widespread will depend upon the credibility of the legitimacy of the elections and the surrounding institutions.

Partisan Tensions

The prominence of disputes within, rather than between, parties will have a consequence for the election season, especially the primaries. Indeed, violence has already occurred in Ekiti State during the primary elections held in June 2018.

Positions within the APC, in particular, are expected to be highly contested, and there appears to be a distinct inability by the APC to consolidate its internal party structure and effectively resolve internal rivalries. This is expected, in many states, to potentially lead to violence as both candidates and party officials struggle for position.

In addition, President Buhari’s health has not been good. He was absent from government for two months in 2017 receiving treatment in the UK. He has refused to address the media regarding his health. This has left him open to criticism regarding transparency and ability. There is the risk that this could create an environment conductive to violence if people perceive that authority is being usurped in the presidential residence by those surrounding him.

Mobilization of Violence

The former vice president Atiku Abubakar, who has split from ACP in order to join PDP, will undoubtedly play an important role. For one thing, he is the richest person in his home state of Adamawa and is expected to spend a significant sum on the election. How this money is spent is critical, and some fear that it could potentially be used to incentivize violence.

There are several wealthy and powerful individuals, known as “godfathers”, in many states who have the potential to shape and direct the elections, or at the very least attempt to do so. Their influence also threatens to increase the risk of violence as they use their resources to incentivize activists who may become, intentionally or otherwise, overzealous and ultimately violent. At the same time those who perceive the role of the so-called “godfathers” as unduly influencing the elections may in turn resort to violence in response. Young people are often viewed as both the victims and perpetrators of electoral violence. However, there is a general perception that politicians and “godfathers” are the ones manipulating the youth and orchestrating the violence.

Furthermore, during the 2015 elections in River State, politicians co-opted security forces to actually create chaos and propagate violence. Politicians also orchestrated the destruction of property, harassment, kidnapping and assassination of citizens. A perception, and indeed the reality, that those with power can organise violence with impunity has a corrosive effect on the credibility of elections and state institutions.

Insecurity and Policing

Ironically, the government’s successes in combating Boko Haram may lead to more open political competitiveness and with it the possibility of party-based violence. This is because the caution around violence engendering chaos and creating space for Boko Haram to thrive has become less relevant. Adamawa State (the home of former VP Atiku Abubakar) was hit hard by Boko Haram violence from 2012 onwards. As a consequence, the 2015 local government elections in those areas most affected by Boko Haram were held in the state capital of Yola. The distance involved in getting there to vote, and the lack of transparency involved in a local election taking place outside the locality, seriously damaged the credibility of the election.

In 2018, people in Adamawa State largely consider the so-called herder-farmer conflict to be a greater security risk. The herder-farmer conflicts, especially in the northern and central middle-belt states, have created the perception that large parts of the country are insecure. The herders tend to be identified as northern Muslims, while the farmers tend to be identified as southern Christians, this has added to the divisive questions of ethnic and religious identity. Faced with the perception of widespread insecurity many feel that the government are either ineffective or complicit in the violence.

Perceptions of poor performance by the police many states have led to concerns about the impartiality and professionalism of the police. Many people view the police as willing tools of the governing party. At the same time there is also a risk of over-securitization during the coming election which could deter voters and create the impression that political freedoms are being curbed. For example, Plateau State, which has a long history of inter-communal conflict, and where local Government elections have historically presented a risk of violence. Local government elections due to be held in February 2018 were cancelled at the last minute for unspecified security reasons. President Buhari visited the state in June 2018 and was informed that the state was largely peaceful. He posed the question why, if it was safe enough for a visit by the president, was it not safe enough to conduct local elections. The politicization of security further undermines citizen’s trust in the institutions of the state and contributes to the risk of violence when people believe the system is stacked against them.

Social Media

There has been an increased use of social media, especially among younger voters. This can have two impacts of the risk of electoral violence. On the one hand, social media has made access to information about what is going on in other parts of the country immediate, on the other hand the use of social media also can also create a feedback loop in which some of this reporting is misinformed or indeed out entirely false. It also allows for coordination by elements intent on violence, or the spread of a narrative of resentment and grievance which can open the door to violent reaction.

Signs of Hope

The Role of the INEC

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is a key institution in maintaining both the reality and perception of credible honestly-run elections. However while there is significant confidence in the INEC the challenges it faces are also significant.

Many feel that peaceful elections depend on the performance of the INEC and dissatisfaction with the commission could spark violence. Given the success of the 2015 elections and the general belief in the competence of the INEC, any failings in their conduct in the 2019 elections may be viewed as deliberate attempt to frustrate the will of the voters rather than as mere incompetence. This could pose a serious risk of violence if the elections were deemed illegitimate by voters.

Another challenge for the INEC is the credibility of the electoral register. This is linked to the risks of violence in several ways. Citizens who are unable to register may act forcibly to prevent registered voters from voting, likewise citizens who are denied registration, are removed from the register, or are turned away from the voting booths could also spark violence. Furthermore, because voter registration largely goes on unobserved, when citizens indigenous to a locality see people they perceive to be outsiders waiting to vote at their local polling station it raises questions about the legitimacy of the register. This in turn may lead to attempts to block outsiders from participating in the election and result in violence.

It is also critically important that results are managed in a timely and transparent manner. Transparency could mitigate much of the risk. The simple act of posting the results on the wall openly and quickly can allay any fears of collusion by INEC officials with any one political party.

The Role of Religious Leaders

In Anambra State, the influence of the Anglican and Catholic bishops could be a decisive factor in ameliorating any risk of violence. Their statements have the power to influence voters and can be used to ensure candidate, and their political operatives, quell any rising sentiments of intolerance that may lead to partisan violence.

In Plateau State, religious leaders have taken action to stamp down on religious intolerance. The state chairmen of the Christian Association of Nigeria (C.A.N.) and Jama’atul Naril Islam, along with the Catholic and Anglican archbishops, have all quickly responded to intolerant rhetoric in order to quell the escalation of further disputes. The C.A.N. and the Irshad unit of Jama’atul Naril Islam will monitor the language of both politicians and clergy and can report those they deem to be creating conditions for violence.

The Role of the Media

There have also been important initiatives to improve the election coverage by the media. During the 2018 local elections in Kano State the media outlets and broadcasters joined together to provide comprehensive reportage of the elections. By pooling their resources journalists were able to provide coverage for a far greater geographical area. The result was that coverage was more accurate, more comprehensive, more measured and with fewer incidences of intolerant or inflammatory reporting.

by OLA Justice Officer, John McGeady