Nigeria: Is Democracy at Risk Amid Spreading Violence?

Washington, DC — Africa’s most populous country – with the largest economy on the continent – will hold its 7th consecutive presidential and national assembly elections on 25 February 2023. Most elections for state governors will be on 11 March.

Nigeria has had 23 years of unbroken civilian rule – the longest period in the nation’s history. For the first time, there will be three major presidential contenders on the ballot. The winner will inherit the reins of a country pulled in different directions by multiple security pressures that are the worst since the country fought a civil war over the attempt by Biafra to secede in the late 1960s.

Post-independence elections in Nigeria are marked by contentious politics and violence, usually exacerbated by socio-economic pressures. Post-election violence in Kaduna state in 2011, for example, was worsened by a history of sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims, and a culture of impunity for religion-related violence. In Rivers state, the 2015 and 2019 post-election violence was fed by organized crimes perpetuated by armed militia groups in collaboration with political factions in the state.

As next year’s elections draw near, internal security pressures have increased in intensity and magnitude. In the south-east, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and its militant arm, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), are leading a new clamor for secession and increasingly clash with public security forces. Targets of attacks include police stations, prisons, courts, and offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) – the entity charged with conducting elections.

The online newspaper Premium Times reported on 22 October that IPOB members attacked 164 police facilities across several states in the south-east. According to Nigerian Attorney-General Abubakar Malami, ESN killed 175 security personnel between October 2020 and June 2021.

There are troubling reports of human rights violations by security forces. And amid an overly militarized approach by the government towards the IPOB movement, there are disturbing reports that the ESN plans to enforce sit-at-home orders to thwart voter turnout during the general elections.

Nigeria’s South-South region, though less a theater of criminal insurgency than earlier, still presents the threat of cult-group violence. Groups of young people who follow cult leaders have proliferated across the six states of the region. Leading up to an election cycle, the violence typically intensifies. Nigerian scholar Dr. George C. Nche cites economic deprivation, lack of jobs and loss of hope among the reasons that youth become part of – and exploited by – a violent cult.

The existence of violent cults and their role in competitive politics pose significant risks to the 2023 elections.

Cult leaders try to achieve territorial control, which provides leverage to negotiate with political parties to ‘deliver.’ This innocuous term is used to describe a situation where violence is coercively deployed to ensure victory for a particular candidate, in exchange for financial gains. Consequently, supremacy battles between cult groups have become an extension of political battles, because politicians are the major funders.

The South-West and Northern regions have become epicenters for banditry and kidnappings. The Nigerian government finally has declared the ubiquitous armed bandits as “terrorists.” Major hotspots for banditry in Nigeria are Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi, Kaduna, Sokoto, Nasarawa and Niger states.

On October 25, 2022, the US State Department authorized the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and their families from Nigeria due to a heightened risk of terrorist attacks. The travel advisory came after the United States and the UK warned of a possible terrorist attack in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, especially aimed at government buildings, places of worship, schools and marketplaces.

Tragically, these hitherto dispersed criminal entities have evolved into an organized crime network, some claiming allegiance to extremist armed groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which continue to threaten peaceful elections in Nigeria. These groups are heavily involved in the kidnapping of school children and community members for the purpose of extorting huge sums of ransom money.

Armed groups can be employed opportunistically to perpetrate election violence or to prevent elections in opposition political strongholds.

Electoral violence in Nigeria seldom occurs in a vacuum. It is maliciously propelled by a system that rewards violence in the context of an overwhelmed security architecture, and it is sustained by a culture of impunity. Perpetuating this intricate matrix of chaos, violent groups continue to rise and spread across Nigeria to serve as tools for fierce political contestation and contention.

Following simultaneous attacks on INEC offices, INEC Chair Professor Mahmood Yakubu called an emergency meeting with the Inter-Agency Consultative Committee for Election Security (ICCES) on 11 November. Yakubu stressed the need for immediate action to stop the spread of violent political attacks. He noted that 904 ballot boxes, 29 voting cubicles, 8 electric power generators, 57 election bags, 30 megaphones, 65,699 uncollected Permanent Voters’ Cards (PVCs), and a host of other assorted items, such as stamps and stamp pads, already have been destroyed. A PVC is required to vote in Nigeria. This systematic targeting of INEC offices constitutes voter suppression.

INEC currently is running a national anti-violence campaign. Political candidates have signed the “Election Peace Accord.” With three major presidential contenders, the stakes are higher than usual for an uncommonly fierce contest.

The Nigerian people can act to build peace and protect democracy.

What must Nigerians do? All citizens of every age and gender must become stakeholders – committed actors in the struggle to free Nigeria from political thuggery. Nigerians must understand the strength in numbers; that power lies with the vote, and that true leadership is about serving the people.

Civil Society Organizations have fought for a credible electoral process. INEC is working with a new Electoral Act that will ensure election transparency. Voters must remain free to elect their candidate of choice without fear or intimidation. Election security is paramount; election materials and polling officials must remain safe.

Ultimately, Nigeria’s security crisis is a profound reflection of underlying socio-economic factors that are deeply rooted in a dismal failure of leadership and governance. There is unprecedented urgency for Nigerians to build local and regional peace and strive towards good governance, especially given the current trend of conflicts and weakening democracies across the Sahel region.

Melvin Foote @Melvinfoote is the founder and president of the Constituency for Africa, a 25-year-old network of businesses, associations, and people in Washington, D.C., dedicated to the development and empowerment of Africa and Africans everywhere.

Iyore James @driyorejames is a board-certified surgeon and Fellow of the American College of Surgeons who has taken her medical skills to Nigeria to help the people of her ancestral country.  She told a 21 November forum hosted by the Constituency for Africa, including @USAmbPEPFAR Dr. John Nkengasong, that an estimated 40 doctors and 150 nurses are emigrating from Nigeria weekly, due to lack of essentials to treat patients.

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