In February 2019, Nigerians go to the polls to elect the country’s next president, parliament and state governors. Nigeria’s elections have historically been tense, and as the campaign gets underway there are concerns the upcoming process will see new violence. USIP’s Chris Kwaja, Oge Onubogu and Aly Verjee, the authors of a USIP Special Report on the risks of election violence in Nigeria, discuss the significance of the vote, what has changed since the 2015 elections, and suggest what can be done to mitigate risks of violence.

A woman votes at a polling station in Kano, Nigeria, March 28, 2015. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)
A woman votes at a polling station in Kano, Nigeria, March 28, 2015. (Samuel Aranda/The New York Times)

Why are Nigeria’s 2019 elections significant?

Kwaja: For many citizens, Nigeria’s 2019 elections will not be a sit-and-watch event. In 2015, Nigerians voted to defeat a sitting president—for the first time in the country’s history—in order to better their fortunes. But, they have been disappointed by the government’s inability to fulfill many of its promises. Thus, many Nigerians view participation in this election as essential to hold the government accountable— the rush to collect permanent voter cards is a demonstration of the intention to participate. The rise of intra-party friction—particularly within the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC)—has shown the desperation of the political class and the parties to retain power, as many politicians believe winning the party primary is an automatic ticket to victory in the general elections.

The 2019 elections also come amid growing tensions along ethno-religious and regional lines in a country where the presidential election cannot be won without forming alliances. As politicians jockey to forge such alliances with the hope this will realize their political ambitions, a slew of defections within the APC and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has occurred.

Onubogu: The 2019 elections come 20 years after the restoration of democracy in Nigeria. These elections will be the first to include Nigerians born since 1999—the so called “born free” generation—who have never known the disappointment of dictatorship and the one-party state. These young people consequently expect a great deal from multi-party politics, but many are also disillusioned. The 2019 elections will be a good test of their apathy, or enthusiasm.

These elections are also a test of the robustness of Nigeria’s democratic consolidation. Can the country hold two consecutive credible elections, or will it fall back? While democratization is not a linear process, many Nigerians expect further progress in 2019, including a credible electoral process.

What are the risks to a peaceful and credible vote? 

Kwaja: Farmer-pastoralist conflicts are the most potent threat to the 2019 elections. While Boko Haram is primarily active in northeast Nigeria, the conflicts between farmers and pastoralists have affected a much wider cross-section of the country. The ethno-religious orientation of farmer-pastoralist conflicts has further deepened divisions between Christians and Muslims. This may have serious implications for voting patterns, as there is a common perception that President Buhari has not done enough to address these problems in part because he shares the Muslim and Fulani identity of most pastoralists.

Verjee: While many of the risk factors that have affected past elections are unchanged, the relative significance of these factors varies across the country. For example, in Adamawa state in northeast Nigeria, there remain concerns about the potential for Boko Haram militants to disrupt the election campaign and voting. But because the militants appear to be less capable in Adamawa than before, the improved security situation in the state might allow more open competition between political parties. Perhaps paradoxically, therefore, one form of political violence—extremist attacks—may be partially replaced by another—inter-party violence.

Across Nigeria, people told us that they expect the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) to deliver a credible election, given the commission was able to do so in 2015. Any regression from the standard set in 2015 could lead to violence, if people believe that any electoral deficiencies are deliberate rather than unintended.

Violence around elections in Nigeria is not new. What has changed since the last election? 

Onubogu: While there are multiple, long-standing forms of violence in Nigeria, it is new that people interpret these conflicts as having national scope and ambition when previously they might have been conceived of as “local” issues. So, clashes between farmers and herders, for example, appear to be part of a broader national narrative, and, therefore, even attempting to resort to local mechanisms of conflict resolution seems pointless. The expectations of citizens for who is responsible for initiating, propagating, and resolving conflicts has changed.

Social media is clearly more important now than it was in 2015, particularly in Nigeria’s cities. Social media has democratized access to information in Nigeria. It allows news of events in distant states to reach other parts of the country more quickly than conventional media. But sometimes it has also helped fuel rumors, which risks opening the door to intolerant responses.
Verjee: In 2019, it is expected that the most competitive presidential candidates will hail exclusively from northern Nigeria, unlike 2015, which saw a Christian from southern Nigeria face a northern Muslim. This may change the prospects for inter-communal tensions across the country, as appeals to claims of identity may be less persuasive in the presidential election.

At least so far, internal political party disputes appear to be more significant now than in 2015. While intra-party conflict is not new in Nigeria, this trend may represent a reversion to pre-2015 norms. The APC may fragment or see continued defections to other parties, and that may increase the risk of violence well before Election Day.

The research you’ve mentioned looked at the situation in several different states. What are the most important findings at the state level? 

Kwaja: Though Plateau state has witnessed significant violent conflict, most of these conflicts have not been linked to federal elections. Plateau state has demonstrated that there can be both formal and informal mechanisms to successfully manage conflict. In the case of Rivers state, previous elections have been characterized by violence. There are growing concerns that the 2019 elections will be marred by violence between supporters of state Governor Nyesome Wike of the PDP and his APC challenger, Rotimi Ameachi, the minister of transportation. Mitigating conflict in Rivers may be more challenging—most of the efforts to bring calm have been reactive and ad hoc, with the deployment of security forces to enforce peace as the first resort. 

Verjee: Fifteen of Nigeria’s 36 states have or are scheduled to conduct local government elections in 2018 or 2019. We conducted research in three of these states: Kaduna, Kano and Rivers. Whether there are irregularities, or perceptions of irregularities, in the conduct of local elections may affect the chances of election violence in the national polls. In the cases we examined, we found that disputes arising from these local elections may have significant implications for the 2019 vote, but that these consequences have been largely overlooked, as local elections are administered separately from the federal elections.

What can be done to mitigate possible violence?

Onubogu: Both Nigerian institutions and international supporters of the electoral process can do more. INEC could be more assertive in its public relations and outreach to citizens—only informing voters of the basic procedures of voting, or asking people to desist from violence, is insufficient to change behavior. Greater transparency would help and give people confidence the process is being well administered.

The United States could intensify its pre-election diplomacy, and clearly convey that it expects Nigeria’s political parties to act responsibly and discipline members, party officials and candidates that fall short of the standards of acceptable conduct. While there may well be problems on Election Day, focusing on the so-called “hot spot” risks missing the broader picture of electoral and political violence and why it occurs. For mitigation to succeed, we need to first understand the nuanced, particular pathways that could lead to violence to begin with.

Kwaja: Community-level violence mitigation efforts, which are directly linked to, and aligned with local actors and contexts, should be supported by the federal and state governments and civil society and development partners. For many Nigerians, electoral violence is a consequence of flawed processes that are further compromised by the actions or inactions of the INEC or the security agencies. Thus, it is critical that the INEC and security services manage the process in a way that ensures electoral integrity and instills confidence in citizens that their votes will count.

Read the Special Report on the risks of electoral violence in Nigeria.

Oge Onubogu is a senior program officer for Africa programs at USIP. Chris Kwaja is a USIP senior advisor and a professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola, Nigeria. Aly Verjee is a visiting expert at USIP, specializing in the politics of eastern Africa.  

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