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.