Boko Haram, Ballot Cards and Bunkering: Security challenges facing the Nigerian elections

On 28 March, an estimated 68 million people will cast their ballots in what are likely to be the most fiercely contested elections in post-independent Nigeria. Initially scheduled to be held on 14 February, the ballot was postponed by Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) amid security concerns, to allow military operations to be intensified against the violent Islamist group Boko Haram in the country’s north-east.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has governed Nigerian since the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999, faces its first challenge from the All Progressive’s Congress (APC) opposition coalition. Opinion polls indicate that PDP candidate and incumbent Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, is running neck and neck with the APC’s presidential nominee and former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari. The parliamentary and state gubernatorial legs of the ballot are also expected to be tightly contested.

Although increased political competition could theoretically strengthen Nigeria’s relatively young democracy, acrimonious and divisive politicking by the rival parties has increased the potential for violence. Indeed violence between supporters of rival parties has already begun.  Clashes have so far been sporadic and mostly not fatal, but they have sounded a clear warning that political scores could be settled even more violently.

Nigeria’s voters are roughly divided in half, between a pro-government and Christian-dominated south and a Muslim-dominated and pro-opposition north, so any outbreak of political civil unrest could easily become ethnic and religious.

Any perception that the elections are not transparent, inclusive, free and fair would be an obvious trigger of violence. Worryingly, several technical problems could cast a dark shadow over the credibility of the elections.

The most obvious of these is the INEC’s lack of preparedness. As of 15 March, INEC had only managed to deliver about 82 percent of the biometric cards which voters will need to cast their ballots. Failure by the organisation to deliver the remaining 13 million voter cards could seriously undermine the inclusiveness of the election. That could be particularly dire in electoral constituencies which will be tightly contested and where margins for victory are likely to be slim.

Another logistical quandary centres on the use of smart card readers for the first time. The INEC says these devices will help combat electoral fraud by verifying the legitimacy of the biometric voter cards. However several political parties, including the ruling PDP, have publically opposed the use of the smart card readers because they say they have not been thoroughly tested and adequate contingency measures have not been put in place where they are found to be faulty. The ruling party had also raised concerns about the distribution of the devices and whether INEC officials are competent to use them. Any problems encountered with the smart card readers on Election Day could raise serious concerns about the consistency of the voting process.

History warns that a rejection of electoral results, based on perceived lack of inclusivity, transparency and fairness of the ballot, could incite significant outbreaks of politically motivated unrest. During Nigeria’s 2011 presidential elections as many as 1,000 people were killed following accusations that the election had been rigged in favour of the ruling party.  The politically-polarised Middle Belt region, most notably the states of Kaduna and Plateau, were at the heart of the spontaneous and protracted political violence and remain susceptible to it still.

Of course Boko Haram could also seriously undermine the credibility of the elections. It has ideological and strategic motives for wanting to disrupt the voting violently.  Ideologically, it abhors elections as they are the cornerstone of Western-styled democracy which it detests. Moreover it  blames such elections for producing secular Nigerian governments which are exploitative and morally corrupt.

Strategically, Boko Haram may also attack the elections to ferment a political crisis in Nigeria. The electoral constituencies in north-eastern Nigeria, which are most at risk from the Boko Haram insurgency, are also the strongholds of Nigeria’s major opposition parties. As many as two million potential opposition supporters there will be unable to cast their ballots either because they have already been displaced by Boko Haram’s violence or because they will too scared to vote on Saturday. So even a definitive electoral victory by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) could be rejected by the APC on the grounds that a substantial number of its supporters were disenfranchised.

The north eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, where Boko Haram is most entrenched, are most at risk of its electoral violence. However, the threat is also likely to extend to neighbouring states including Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Kano, Kebbi, and Plateau. And a major attack somewhere well beyond its home turf – perhaps in the political capital Abuja or the commercial capital Lagos- also remains a credible threat because it would emphasise the extent of Boko Haram’s reach.

The potential for Boko Haram-related election violence is not just supposition. On February 18, Boko Haram released a video recording in which its leader Abubakar Shekau was quoted as saying “Allah will not leave you to proceed with these elections even after us, because you are saying that authority is from people to people, which means that people should rule each other, but Allah says that the authority is only to him, only his rule is the one which applies on this land.

“And finally we say that these elections that you are planning to do, will not happen in peace, even if that costs us our lives.”

Boko Haram is, however, not the only non-state armed group which might seek a stake in the elections. In recent weeks, several former Niger Delta militant commanders have increasingly threatened violence if their preferred candidate, President Jonathan, is not re-elected. Many argue that an electoral victory for the APC would end the amnesty programme which has given former militants state patronage and vocational training in exchange for laying down their arms.

There are also concerns that a northern-dominated opposition government might clamp down on oil bunkering- or theft – in the Niger Delta — a burgeoning industry which sustains many communities. Some former commanders have even threatened to disrupt oil production and expel northern-owned companies from the Niger Delta if Jonathan does not win the elections. The rhetoric of these decommissioned militants raises concerns that voting in the Niger Delta might occur in an intimidatory and hostile environment — raising further questions about the fairness of the elections.

The primary oil producing states of Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa, could be the main flashpoints for politically-motivated violence if Jonathan loses, particularly in the main cities such as the respective state capitals of Asaba, Port Harcourt and Warri, where decommissioned militant commanders continue to exert significant influence.

So the potential for election violence exists in the north, the south and the middle of the country, though for different reasons.

The elections could be a watershed moment for the country’s seemingly maturing democracy.  But if that is to be so, concerted efforts will have to be made to ensure that voting is inclusive, fair and transparent. That will brand the ensuing government with the same virtues.

Conversely, of course, an election fraught with irregularities, exclusivity and a lack of transparency could well produce a government burdened from the start with a reputation for those same vices.

A turning tide? The recapture of Dikwa and MNJTF sanction

On 2 March, Chadian authorities confirmed that the country’s military had recaptured the town of Dikwa, Borno State, which had fallen under Boko Haram control in September 2014.  Dikwa is of strategic importance given the town’s location at the confluence of three major highways which not only provides access to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, but which also facilitates access to both the Borno North and Borno South administrative zones. By liberating the town, Chadian  forces have not only secured the western approach to Maiduguri from Boko Haram eastern strongholds, but  has also secured access routes to insurgent strongholds  toward Lake Chad and southward toward the Mandara Mountains.

Cognisant of its strategic importance, the Nigerian army had itself launched a number of unsuccessful counteroffensives on the settlement. I believe the major challenge that the Nigerian army faced in reclaiming Dikwa was that the town served as forward base for Boko Haram. Its resilience was likely due to the fact that it was garrisoned and enjoyed a rich supply of combatants and resources from Boko Haram’s alleged logistical bases along the Cameroonian border via the town of Gamboru.

However, with Chadian forces launching its counterterrorism operations from Cameroonian territory, its liberation of Gambaru had effectively cut supply lines to Dikwa thus weakening Boko Haram’s ability to defend the town. The situation which existed in Dikwa serves as a microcosm of the Boko Haram insurgency where the Nigerian government struggled to make inroads against the sect from its western positions due to the location of suspected Boko Haram logistical and operational bases along the Nigerian/Cameroonian border. These had been left relatively untouched until the commencement of multilateral military operations against the sect launched in late January 2015.

Reports of Dikwa’s liberation also coincided with reports that the African Union had formally backed the 8700-strong Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) which have been mandated with further countering the Boko Haram threat. While undoubtedly a positive development, we should remain considered that the MNJTF will yield significant results in the fight against Boko Haram. As reported by the BBC, the MNJTF force will only operate between the outskirts of Niger’s Diffa border town, and the towns of Baga and Ngala in Nigeria. In summary, the composite force will only be mandated with securing the Nigerian side of the Lake Chad region which, according to an undisclosed military source, comprises a”only 10 to 15% of the entire area where Boko Haram operates”.

MNJTF operations against the sect also face myriad operational and logistical challenges. For one, regional and domestic power dynamics could pose an obstacle to the unfettered cooperation on which success depends. Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party is already under domestic pressure due to the presence of foreign forces on its soil, with opposition candidate and former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari, describing it as a “disgrace.” With elections looming, the government is no doubt keen to counter such accusations by dictating the rules of engagement and asserting its primacy in any definitive victories scored against Boko Haram. Such posturing may not, however, be welcomed by the country’s alliance partners, who may themselves want to claim any victories.

From a wider geopolitical perspective, decades-old territorial disputes between Nigeria and its neighbors, particularly over ownership of the resource-rich Lake Chad, could also foster mutual distrust that could compromise cooperation. Unanswered questions regarding the financing, logistics, and coordination of the multilateral force might also threaten its efficacy.

Even if the combined forces are successful in dislodging Boko Haram from its regional strongholds, this may not bring about immediate stability. It is worth noting that the group’s recent strategy of capturing and holding territory is a novel development in its decade-long insurgency. Prior to July 2014, when it seized its first town, the sect effectively operated as a guerrilla force waging an urban terror campaign that spread as far west as the city of Sokoto and as far south as the capital, Abuja. During this time, suicide and car bombings, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, armed ambushes, and coordinated raids became a near daily occurrence across parts of Nigeria. Indeed, as noted by a spate of recent attacks in Potiskum, Biu and Jos, it appears that Boko Haram reverting to an asymmetric armed campaign appears to be in full swing. This poses some serious concerns regarding the security climate in which Nigeria’s ballot is set to take place and could potentially place millions of voters at risk.

Nevertheless, the gains being made against the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect should not be understated. Less than three months ago, Boko Haram appeared to be an indomitable force to which the beleaguered Nigerian government and its army had no answer. Today the sect is being dislodged from towns and cities which had fallen under its brutal control with the same rapidity which underpinned their initial capture. While the war against Boko Haram may still be far from over, the tide may be ever so slowly turning…