“Elections 2015: Solider, three others killed in Rivers” was the headline on a National Newspaper in Nigeria after the 2015 general elections. This type of violence, however, has become the norm when it comes to elections in Africa’s most populous country. Nigeria has had a checkered history with violence during its elections down the years. Since the 1964 Federal Elections, where politicians of what was then known as the “First Republic” engaged in a battle for supremacy that resulted in widespread violence, intimidation and oppression, the country’s elections have often been marred by violence and wanton killings. Nigeria’s politicians have mastered the deathly game of manipulating its electorate through religion, ethnic and other divisive sentiments to encourage the use of violence to win elections.
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first President, warned about the dangers of electoral violence and the role of politicians in fomenting it when he stated, in the build up to the 1964 Federal Elections: ‘I have one advice to give to our politicians: If they have decided to destroy our national unity, then they should summon a round-table conference to decide how our national assets should be divided, before they seal their doom by satisfying their lust for office…. Should the politicians fail to heed this warning, I will venture the prediction that the experience of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will be child’s play, if it ever comes to our turn to play such a tragic role.’ His prediction was later to come to pass; in 1966, the country experienced its first military coup as a fallout from the political upheaval occasioned by the 1964 elections. This subsequently led to the Nigerian civil war and one of the worst humanitarian disasters the country has ever known.
Ever since the return of democratic rule in Nigeria in 1999, elections have been usually characterized by violence, rigging and all other forms of malpractices as politicians continue to influence their supporters to participate in intimidation and lethal violence against voters, opposition supporters, and the election management body, INEC, in order to secure themselves or their cronies a place in office. In 2007 for instance, after one of the worst elections experienced in the new democratic dispensation, the then winner, President Umaru Musa Yar’adua, acknowledged openly that the process that brought him to power was flawed and proceeded to institute whole sale reforms of the electoral process and legislation.
Access to power in Nigeria comes with myriad economic and political advantages; winners of elections, particularly gubernatorial elections, in Nigeria often enjoy unbridled control of huge resources accruing to states in the form of monthly allocations from the Federal Government, thereby encouraging a high stakes, zero sum contest between politicians. Furthermore, access to power and political influence, often confers on the winner control of an army of rent seeking political patrons struggling to gain their attention in order to become beneficiaries of proceeds from oil wealth, rents, and vast contracts. In addition, there is the large army of militants, political thugs and violent merchants whose services are readily available to the highest bidder to do all forms of dirty work ranging from intimidating the opposition, offering informal protection and rigging for the benefit of the ruling party. Accordingly, most aspirants and political parties would go to any length to gain access to the seat of power, and will subsequently do just about anything imaginable to hold on to it.
As was pointed out by one author, the Nigerian ”political class” has sustained this model of divisive politics and the predatory structure that accompanies it, which they exploit at will to acquire political power and gain unfair access to the control of state resources. The state, in the process, loses its relative autonomy and becomes alienated from the generality of the people who, in turn, relate to it as an institution to be cheated, exploited and abused at will. The perceived failure of the state to deploy its instruments to mediate fairly and objectively in political agitations and contestations have occasionally been held as justification for the violations of rules of engagement by both aggrieved stakeholders and opportunists alike, thereby turning the state into an arena of zero-sum competition for power and the wealth that goes with it. This absence of the moderating influence of the state coupled with the erosion of the ethical foundation for free and transparent political contests, renders Nigerian politics uniquely Hobbesian’.
It is noteworthy though that violence in Nigeria’s elections does not occur in isolation, rather, it often mirrors the overall context of violence experienced in the country on a routine basis. In fact, experience has shown that elections often worsen already tense situations, gnaw at existing divisions and awaken deep-seated ethnic or religious rivalries. It is no wonder that over time, Nigeria’s worst cases of electoral violence have often fed off prevailing dynamics in the country at the time of the election, whether they are ethnic or religious. More worrying for peace and security experts as the 2019 elections approaches, is the prevailing situation of violence currently being experienced in many parts of Nigeria. Since 2014, Nigeria has been pulled on so many sides by different forms of irregular warfare. Military and security analysts have often utilized the term Irregular Warfare to describe conflicts that involve non-state actors and combatants that do not belong to the regular armed forces or operate under a clear chain-of-command. In the North East, the deadly Boko Haram insurgency has picked up steam again despite attempts by the government to wish it away with claims that the insurgents have been ‘technically defeated’. In February 2018, a reported faction of the deadly armed group boldly invaded the town of Dapchi and to the chagrin of the Nigerian Government and its security apparatus, kidnapped about 110 school girls and vanished into thin air. This incident hasn’t been the only footprint of the now rejuvenated group in the North East region; in recent times, the group has claimed responsibility for attacking a convoy of international humanitarian and medical staff, laying ambush to Nigerian military operations and killing soldiers, abducting of residents from the region. These bold-faced attacks have been carried out almost in defiance of the military presence in the area. Although the 2017 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) showed that Boko Haram attacks have been reduced considerably, the index still ranked Nigeria as the third most terrorized country in the world.
In the middle belt region of Nigeria, particularly in Benue, Kogi, Taraba, and Adamawa States, there has been renewed violence between herders and farmers resulting in thousands of deaths over a period of four years. In fact, in 2015, the GTI ranked Fulani militant groups operating in Nigeria and parts of the Central African Republic as the fourth most deadly terror group in the world. In 2018 alone, the group has been responsible for series of attacks on farming communities and villages, leaving in its wake a string of devastated communities and deaths of villagers. An Amnesty International report released in January 2018 estimates over 168 deaths from pastoral Fulani militias in January 2018 alone. Violence occasioned by herdsmen has however, not been limited to the North Central region of Nigeria. Since 2016, there has been a continued increase in violent attacks from herdsmen and farmers in the South East states of Enugu, Anambra, Ebonyi, Abia and Imo States as well in the South-South states of Delta, Cross River, and Edo States. The prevailing situation has overwhelmed the Nigerian Police Force prompting the deployment of the Nigerian Military -already stretched by what appears to be an unending Boko Haram Insurgency – to some of these areas faced with violence from herdsmen attacks. The inability of the security forces to end these attacks has taken on an added, ethnic dimension. In February 2018, while engaging with a cross section of stakeholders in Abia State, Partners’ for Peace, a network of peace actors and a grassroots-led initiative, reported that residents from Abia State view the inability of the security forces to stop the attacks as an ethnic agenda to further suppress the Igbos. According to participants from the session, the incessant herder and farmer violence has been enabled by the Federal Government’s political posture on the issue.. According to feedback from the sessions, there is already a mass mobilization movement from Churches in Abia State and the South East in general to encourage people to elect a Christian president in 2019 that will best serve and protect their interests.
In the South- South region of Nigeria, there is prevailing armed violence from cult and militant groups that have unleashed violence on the residents of these states. According to a recent PIND foundation report, cult violence has been a regular feature in the socio-political setting of the region for more than a decade. In Rivers, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Delta States in particular, cults have served as a gateway to all kinds of criminality and violence, including militancy. These groups and networks of groups have wide geographical penetration in the states and are heavily armed. In Rivers, as well as other states, cult groups overlap with street gangs, criminal syndicates, youth associations, and other militias. From the more notorious Deybam, Deywell, Greenlanders and Icelanders, to the lesser known Doctor’s Squad, Italians, Blood Hunters, Junior Vikings, Bermuda and others, cult groups have proliferated deep into the communities of Rivers State, Bayelsa and in Rivers State with reach into the communities of Emohua, Ikwerre, Khana, Ogba Egbema Ndoni, Ahoada Amassoma, Yenagoa, Nembe, Ughelli, Uvwie, and Ekpan communities. However, a much deeper implication for cult violence persists and deserves more consideration: namely, that cult or armed groups in the south play a pivotal role in election violence. Cult groups understand Nigeria’s history with election violence and they have tapped into that opportunity by offering their services as hired arms to intimidate political opponents and rig elections for their paymasters.
As these violent conflicts proliferate across the country, it has several implications for the overall security of the country and the 2019 elections. Firstly, as states feel that the existing security architecture doesn’t offer the needed protection to its citizens, they will take measures to protect their citizenry by enacting laws to establish parallel security outfits. In Rivers State, the State House of Assembly has enacted a law to establish the Neighbourhood Watch Safety Corps with the objective of supporting existing security agencies with intelligence and information for them to effectively fight crime and make the state safer. According to the State Governor, the law was patterned after an enactment of the Lagos State House of Assembly with the same name and objective. In Imo State, the State Governor has already established the ‘Imo Security Network’ whose objective is to compliment the efforts of security agencies and the already existing vigilante groups. In Zamfara State, the Yan Sakai vigilantes were set up to combat cattle rusting activities and other forms of crimes before they were disbanded in 2016. What this means is that these states are seeing the failure of the formal and conventional security and are improvising means to have their own forces that they can trust and control. The implications of these moves for the 2019 elections though is both new and significant. . For instance, State Governments and politicians from the ruling party can utilize any of the state sponsored security outfits as means for violence in elections as has been pointed out by opposition politicians in Rivers, and Imo States.
Secondly, another implication is the democratization of weapons. The various armed groups identified above have access to several forms of sophisticated weapons with which they engage in continuous battles with formal security outfits or with rival groups. The effect being that the demands for illegal weapons are continually rising and weapons of war are ending up in the wrong hands. In 2016, the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace Disarmament in Africa raised an alarm on the spate of proliferation of illicit small arms and light weapons in Nigeria to the tune of 350 million. This posited figure, accounts for 70 per cent of the estimated 500 million small arms and light weapons (SALW) in Africa. In 2017, Nigerian custom officials were reported to have seized a combined total of 2201 catchment of arms illegally imported into the country during that year alone. What this implies is that guns are ending up in the wrong hands, and as security expert Chris Ngwodo rightly pointed out, the Nigerian State is currently faced with a situation where it no longer has the monopoly on the use of force or violence.
The overall implication of this situation in the context of the 2019 elections in Nigeria is that politicians can choose from an array of options to perpetuate violence against their opponents and voters in order to win elections, thus, not just continuing a long and deadly tradition of electoral violence but, further deepening it. The situation is even more disconcerting when one takes into consideration the existence of two opposing political parties with the resources, desperation and clout to win elections at all costs. This spells doom for the future of elections in Nigeria.
Chris Ngwodo, quoted above, also rightly pointed out that it is important for the Nigerian Government to regain the monopoly of the use of force and the means of violence. It must necessarily ensure that it stops the influx of arms into the country, that arms in the hands of non-state actors are mopped up, and that perpetrators of violence are prosecuted and punished. As stated earlier, violence in elections merely mirrors the prevailing dynamics in the context and as long as violence persists particularly at the behest of several non-state actors, election violence will necessarily continue.