What's new? Nigeria is preparing for general elections on 25 February and 11 March 2023. The elections will be different from previous polls in several ways, posing new challenges. Amid widespread insecurity, there has been an uptick in election violence, which could escalate further during and after the polls.
Why is it happening? Intense acrimony, especially among the three major parties, has raised tensions across the country. The ethnic, religious and regional identities of the candidates, and bombast from the front runners, have polarised the electorate. Failure to prosecute perpetrators of election violence is emboldening them to commit more such acts.
Why does it matter? A peaceful election is crucial to the country's cohesion and to its credibility in discouraging unconstitutional seizures of power elsewhere in Africa. A violent or disputed vote could aggravate Nigeria's governance challenges and diminish its stature as a democratic leader on the continent.
What should be done? The security forces should step up operations against armed groups and to protect electoral commission offices countrywide, while the judicial system should speedily punish those behind election violence. Parties should tone down inflammatory rhetoric. Foreign partners should sustain support, including by sanctioning those who incite attacks.
Nigeria's democracy faces another crucial test. Presidential, parliamentary and state gubernatorial and assembly elections are scheduled for 25 February and 11 March 2023. These elections differ from the six previous polls since Nigeria's transition from military to civilian rule in 1999. Notably, they will involve the country's largest-ever, most youthful electorate and new technologies. Moreover, the presidential vote will largely be a three-way contest, meaning it is not completely out of the question that it goes to a run-off, which would be Nigeria's first. A peaceful election is critical for the eventual winner's ability to govern and the country's stability. It would also boost Nigeria's credibility in opposing coups in Africa. Yet electoral violence is already on the rise and could escalate further. Nigeria's federal and state governments, security agencies, the election management agency, political parties and international partners should work to mitigate violence by sanctioning perpetrators, firming up election security, defusing inter-party tensions and ensuring the polls are credible.
Nigerian electoral authorities have taken steps to protect the integrity of what could be a particularly complex vote. More than 90 million Nigerians, in a population estimated at over 210 million, are eligible to vote in 2023. That number is considerably larger than the 84 million who could cast ballots in 2019 and bigger than the electorates of West Africa's fourteen other countries combined. To ward off fraud, and thus burnish the vote's legitimacy, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is rolling out technological innovations. It has boosted voter confidence in the credibility of elections. Its current chairman, like his predecessor, is regarded as impartial. President Muhammadu Buhari has also shown greater respect for the INEC's independence than some presidents did in the past. These factors augur what could be a record-high turnout.
Yet several factors heighten the danger of violence. First are persistent security challenges across large swathes of the country. These include Islamist insurgents -- Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province -- in the North East, bandits as well as herders and farmers at loggerheads in the North West and North Central zones, Biafra separatists in the South East and criminal gangs in the Niger Delta. These challenges are affecting election preparations and could disrupt the vote in many places, thus raising the risk of post-election protests that could degenerate into street clashes or worse.
A second factor is the bitter quarrelling among the major parties. Unlike previous elections that were mostly two-horse races, the 2023 presidential contest features three front runners: Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress, Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party. The first two parties in particular are guilty of incitement and hate speech in their messaging, and partisans of all three candidates have spread the same on social media. With each front runner drawing support – strongly but not exclusively – from his ethnic, religious and regional bases, the campaigns are stirring up communal tensions that could turn ugly.
Still other concerns drive up risks. In particular, the failure to punish perpetrators of violence in past elections has sustained a climate of impunity that is continuing in 2023. Some state governors are using their powers to weaken opposition parties, which is fuelling tensions in several states.
There have already been incidents of election-related violence, with more than 50 reported in the first month after campaigning kicked off on 28 September 2022, including more attacks on INEC offices than in the countdowns to past elections. More cases have emerged since. The post-election outlook is grimmer still. There is a chance, albeit perhaps a small one, that no presidential candidate wins the 25 per cent of votes in two thirds of Nigeria’s states required to avoid a run-off, and a second-round vote could bring additional perils. All the three main parties have proclaimed that they expect to win in a landslide. All have strong motives to prevail, perhaps even more so than usual, raising concern that the losing parties – either in the first round or the run-off – may not readily accept defeat.
Two further problems for the elections are the shortages of motor vehicle fuel in most parts of the country since late 2022 and the scarcity of cash following the federal government’s introduction of redesigned banknotes in December. If unresolved before the polls, fuel shortages could hamper INEC logistics and disenfranchise the many voters who need to travel to polling stations. The paucity of currency has already created significant hardship, which could make a greater number of voters vulnerable to vote buying and ratchet up election tensions even further.
The Nigerian government, political parties and civil society groups need to take steps to improve election security, defuse tensions and mitigate the risks of violence. A first priority is to push back armed groups, especially in the North West and the South East. Security forces should also provide better protection for INEC offices and election materials. Candidates and their spokespeople should stop spreading inflammatory rhetoric and refocus their campaigns on substantive issues. Having signed a pledge in September 2022 to campaign peacefully, they should enter another accord, brokered by the National Peace Committee, agreeing to either accept the outcome or challenge any results they feel are not credible in the courts rather than in the streets. INEC and the security agencies must strive to ensure the credibility of the elections, especially by minimising technical flaws and curbing vote buying. The federal government should act fast to resolve the fuel and currency crises.
Foreign partners should support these efforts. The policy of imposing diplomatic sanctions on any Nigerian politician who incites violence or otherwise compromises the vote seemed to help promote peaceful polls in 2015 and 2019. It should continue. Also as in previous elections, international observer missions could help in evaluating the elections’ credibility, which is crucial to managing post-election tensions. Donors should also give more financial, technical and training support to Nigerian civil society organisations that are working to curb electoral violence, notably the National Peace Committee.
Please read the full report here