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Presidential elections in Nigeria: alarm over violence and security likely to drive vote

The Oasis Reporters

February 23, 2023








Protests against police violence from the #EndSars movement face off soldiers in Auchi, Nigeria. i_am_zews/Shutterstock

Victor C. Eze, University of Ibadan and Enzo Fasquelle, Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD)

With Nigeria’s presidential elections slated for Saturday 25 February, the country’s independent electoral commission’s offices have suffered several attacks in recent weeks. Concerns over security have been such that its head, Mahmood Yakubu, expressed doubts on 9 January whether the elections could take place.


Already, in early November, the US embassy had decided to repatriate its “non-essential” diplomatic personnel from the federal capital, Abuja, following a security briefing that was kept confidential. The move prompted a good number of diplomats and businessmen to flee at the time. In turn, the Nigerian press’ reaction ranged from criticism of Washington to alarmist views about rising violence.


Security, once again, is at the heart of the political debate in Africa’s most populous country.


The three main candidates


Incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general now in his 80s, was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019 on the twin promises of ending corruption and insecurity in the country.


His record in office is being defended by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, candidate of Buhari’s party, the All Progressive Congress (APC). Officially 70 years old, Tinubu is the former governor of Lagos (1999-2007), whose corruption cases made headlines in the 1990s. There are 18 candidates in total, and Tinubu’s main opponent is Abubakar Atiku, 76, of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), in power between 1999 and 2015. For the first eight years of that period, Atiku was vice president. Peter Obi of the Labour Party, 61, has a measure of momentum and enjoys support among the younger generation, dubbed the “Obidient”. As they stand, the polls currently available don’t seem particularly reliable.


In Nigeria, there is an unspoken rule that a northern (predominantly Muslim) president should be succeeded by a southern (predominantly Christian) president. This alternation, which has been in place for 24 years, would mean that the president elected in 2023 would be from the south and Christian.


However, the southern candidate, Tinubu, is a Muslim, as are his main northern opponent, Atiku, and the current president, Buhari. Tinubu, has a Muslim running mate, forming a “Muslim-Muslim” ticket. Atiku, on the other hand, is running with a southern Christian. The candidacy of the southern Christian Peter Obi, whose running mate is Muslim, would look ideal on paper if he were not also Igbo, an ethnic group from the South-East (15 to 18% of the total population of the country), sometimes associated with the ex-secessionists of Biafra. How, then, will Nigerians react to this break with traditional patterns?




Lessons from past elections


Since independence in 1960, Nigeria’s political history has been marked by alternating periods of “republican” rule and autocracies often installed through military coups. The current political system – the fourth republic – will have its seventh consecutive presidential election in February.


In Nigerian history, electoral periods tend to be marred by instability and violence. While the first election in 1999 was conducted peacefully, President Obasanjo’s re-election in 2003 was more eventful, with many observers describing it as fraudulent.


Between 2007 and 2022, there were more than 3,000 election-related deaths, according to Nigeria Watch. However, no pattern holds true from one election to the next. For example, in the 2007 elections which EU observers considered “unreliable”, the violence was mainly caused by intra-party disputes for resources and positions, particularly within the PDP. In 2011, more violence broke out after the vote , especially following the results obtained by then-incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan (PDP) in the north, which appeared to favour his opponent and future president, Muhammadu Buhari.


In 2015, Buhari’s victory as leader of the APC – whose broom logo embodies the ambition to clean up the country after 16 years of PDP rule – was also followed by violence, again in the north. The 2019 election was less violent, although local clashes took place. The election was then postponed due to delays in the delivery of election materials.


This year, the vote is expected to be partly electronic, which raises new challenges. With the country’s notoriously unreliable electrical system, polling stations will have to rely on petrol-powered generators. And given refined fuels are running short, it is possible that the 2023 election will be postponed.


Insecurity as a key issue


Alongside inflation and the cost of living, insecurity is one of the subjects most dealt with by the candidates of the various parties.


Kidnappings, robberies and other criminal acts are frequent, and hundreds of deaths per year are caused by terrorist violence in the north, conflicts over territorial resources in the centre, and oil in the south.


The three main candidates propose more or less the same thing: more police and military personnel, and more use of technology.


There are two problems with these proposals. First, the idea of increasing both numbers and budgets is not new. Under Buhari, the military budget has increased significantly, from 4 trillion to 16 trillion Naira (N), or about N30 billion, from the last year of Goodluck Jonathan’s five-year term to Buhari’s. However, this money have failed to materialise on the ground after middlemen diverted some of it.


Second, it is not even certain that increasing the number of police or military personnel will reduce insecurity. On the one hand, increasing the number of police officers will presumably lead to an increase in arrests and thus boost crime statistics. On the other hand, police officers and military personnel are among the first perpetrators of violence.


While police violence has long been decried, with almost every Nigerian having a personal story to tell, it has attracted particular attention in 2020. Faced with repeated and unpunished abuses by a police unit, Nigerian youths took to the streets, giving rise to the #EndSARS movement, named after the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). At least 200 protesters lost their lives to the cause of more peaceful forces, prompting the disbanding of the brigade.


BBC News reports on the End SARS protests in 2020.


As for the military, they have caused more deaths than the Boko Haram terrorists they’re tasked with fighting. According to Nigeria Watch, armed forces are responsible for 55% of the victims of the conflict spanning between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2019. This is due to a lack of discernment in their actions, which are sometimes more akin to retaliation than targeted actions, as well as poorly thought out aerial bombing.


Corruption, the lack of training within the police, as well cooperation between the police and the military, partly explain the country’s critical security situation. It is not certain that boosting budgets or providing new equipment to these personnel will improve the situation.


What to expect from the 2023 elections?


The two main candidates, political veterans in their 70s, are not particularly popular. Nigerians seem resigned in advance, making abstention and apathy the likely winners of the election this year.


As the researcher Corentin Cohen reminds us, however, electoral violence in Nigeria is not limited to the election period itself. It can appear as early as the party primaries, and extend right through the proclamation of the results. Thus even if there is no pattern of electoral violence, the security situation will be closely watched at least until the transition at the end of May 2023.The Conversation


Victor C. Eze, PhD, Research Fellow at IFRA-Nigéria, University of Ibadan and Enzo Fasquelle, Research associate NigeriaWatch & IFRA-Nigeria, Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD)


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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