Widening political rifts, increasing militant attacks and plunging oil revenues are escalating the risks of more widespread violence in Nigeria’s upcoming elections, according to experts who played roles ranging from international organizations to the militant group Boko Haram, during a daylong PeaceGame exercise.

Princeton Lyman at the third biannual PeaceGame

With less than three months before the Feb. 14 general election, which will determine whether President Goodluck Jonathan wins a second term, Africa’s biggest nation and largest economy is facing increasing pressures on multiple fronts. The militant group Boko Haram is accelerating its attacks, which have killed almost 26,000 people since 2011, and public anger over corruption is rising. At the same time, government revenues are being squeezed both by lower global oil prices and declining demand from the U.S. Riots in the aftermath of Jonathan’s victory in 2011 killed more than 800 people and forced an estimated 65,000 from their homes in the country’s north, according to Reuters.

“The time for action is now,” former U.S. Ambassador George Moose told 40 role players, more than a dozen commentators and a live audience who participated in the Dec. 5 event at the U.S. Institute of Peace. A member of the audience who said she is from Nigeria commented at one point that citizens there believe elections too often are manipulated. “We don’t look at elections being real in Nigeria,” she said.

Moose, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa, is vice chairman of USIP’s board of directors, and was co-chairman of the PeaceGame, a joint project between USIP and Foreign Policy magazine that is in its second year and is supported by the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates. Each year features one daylong exercise in Washington and another in Abu Dhabi. This year’s topic focused on “Peacemaking in an Era of Violent Extremism,” with an emphasis on Nigeria. Last year’s two events concentrated on Syria.

“We still have opportunities and possibilities,” Moose said. “And I’m pleased to say that, in the course of the conversation, we did indeed identify a number of specific and concrete” possible approaches to try to reduce the risks.

Among ideas that emerged were to engage more vigorously with the Nigerian government and the opposition, in part to build an understanding that the current direction only benefits Boko Haram. Moose also favored a “peace strategy” that would overcome the frequently isolated and circumscribed approaches devised by local and international players in areas of conflict.

Pressing for urgency

Former Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Johnnie Carson said security-focused solutions alone won’t solve Nigeria’s problems. While many of the necessary answers will require action over the long term – improving governance and the economy, reducing youth unemployment and revitalizing infrastructure, there are steps that can be taken in the shorter term.

“It is a time for higher-level political engagement from Nigeria’s democratic partners – those in Washington, in London, in Berlin and Paris and Brussels,” Carson told the assembly. “The time is now for the prevention, [because] the operating theater is not large enough to take the work that will have to be done to salvage this” in the event of a major crisis.

Any solution has to be driven by Nigerians and will require “reliable, honest, principled partners at every level,” Carson said. “We also need ways to identify spoilers and to single them out and to sanction them if necessary.”

Attahiru Jega, the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), urged traditional community leaders during a conference in Abuja on Dec. 8 to help ensure peaceful elections, saying the country’s democratic progress was at stake, according to The Daily Post, a newspaper in Lagos.

“Free, fair and credible elections do not begin and end with only the procedures that INEC puts in place,” Jega said. “No matter how well elections are conducted, if the outcome is conflict-ridden and violent, it will lose its essence of deepening democracy.”

Pauline Baker, president emeritus of The Fund for Peace and a former U.S. Senate staff director, was among several participants playing the role of Nigerian non-governmental organizations. In that role, she said they would like to see INEC finance mapping projects to reduce violence related to the elections and think more about how displaced Nigerians could vote. Another NGO representative, played by USIP Vice President David Smock, advocated a public discussion focused on generating a consensus about solutions to elections in the country’s north, where violence might make the balloting prohibitive.

Long-term solutions vs. short-term

On efforts to stem extremist violence such as that of Boko Haram, many of the West’s standard tools have been effective in other places, such as Central and South America, the Balkans and Southeast Asia, said former Deputy National Security Advisor Ambassador James Jeffrey, who now is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Whoever wins, there is going to be violence and there is going to be dissension,” Lyman said.

“So there is a bias to turn to that,” Jeffrey said. “Except that’s a long-run solution, and we’re faced here today with a short-term problem,” not only in Nigeria but also with militant groups in the Middle East and the insurgency in Ukraine, he said.

Georgia Holmer, USIP’s deputy director for the Rule of Law Center, said approaches for countering violent extremism need to be tailored for each context and controlled locally, but external assistance can help convey the body of knowledge and skills that have been built up over decades of experience worldwide with similar conflicts.

Princeton Lyman, a former special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan who now serves as a senior advisor to the president of USIP, said the likelihood of a free and fair election in February is “very low.”

“Whoever wins, there is going to be violence and there is going to be dissension,” Lyman said.

Moose noted that the daylong exercise, which began with a focus on the economic roots of extremism and moved on later to the political drivers, often revolved around the constraints to taking any action, considering the realities and potential consequences.

“But as we progressed through this,” Moose said, “we saw that those constraints only increased over time, that the possibilities for constructive and positive action only became more limited.”

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