When Nigeria went to the polls in 2011, a period of intense post-election violence left over 800 dead and thousands more displaced. Given that past incidents of violence are seen as an indicator of the potential for future bloodshed, many fear that a similar outcome will come to pass when the now postponed elections are held on March 28th 2015. In addition, concerns over technical deficiencies, intense political rivalries exacerbated by ethnic and religious cleavages, and the menacing Boko Haram threat, are said to be creating a ‘perfect storm’ that could see the country erupt into another round of fighting. The recent announcement of the delay has compounded the situation further, with opposition candidates viewing it as an attempt to “…subvert Nigeria’s democratic process”.
In this climate, the risk of atrocity crimes is immense. Civilians could find themselves threatened by Boko Haram’s attempts to disrupt the electoral process, heavy-handed retaliation from the Nigerian military, inter-communal or religious post-election violence, or some deadly combination of all of these.
However, despite the presence of these risk factors, electoral violence is not inevitable. As Ban Ki-moon noted in his 2013 thematic report ‘Responsibility to Protect: State Responsibility and Prevention’, the absence of atrocities in countries that display one or more risk factors stems, at least in part, from sources of national resilience. For example, the 2013 election in Kenya demonstrates how a country that has previously experienced atrocity crimes at the polls can learn from this and take preventive measures to avoid repeating the cycle of violence.
There are encouraging signs that Nigerians, regional players, and the international community are learning the lessons of Nigeria’s 2011 election by taking steps to mitigate the risk of atrocities and prevent the recurrence of electoral violence. The below sections detail the unique threats faced by Nigeria, the relationship between elections and mass atrocities, and civil society recommendations for further preventive action that can be taken with the hopes of sparing the country more carnage.
The Looming Threat of Electoral Violence
In a recent Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) report, Jennifer Cooke and Richard Downie categorized Nigeria’s risk of violence as having roots in political, technical and security-based aspects. Politically, the upcoming election is as contested as ever, with two main candidates emerging as strong contenders. The incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and his main opponent, Muhammahdu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC), stand a relatively equal chance of clinching the presidency.
This type of contest makes for heated rhetoric, and sometimes violent action – particularly when elections are tinged with an ethnic or religious tone. The showdown between Jonathan and Buhari is often dangerously depicted as a showdown between Nigeria’s mainly Christian South and the Muslim North. In Nigeria, disparities in access to land, services and jobs also figure along these lines, and many view power as the only way to ensure equal access for one’s regional, ethnic or religious group.
These divisions have already led to low-level instances of violence, for example in attacks on APC candidates and a bombing of a Goodluck Jonathan campaign bus. Other dangerous incidents include the use of intimidation tactics and hate speech, for example, one state governor who referred to the opposition as “cockroaches” amid chants to “kill them” from supporters.
Such tensions are sure to increase if the election results are not viewed credibly. However, technical hiccups have already surfaced that could negatively impact the outcome. Comfort Ero of International Crisis Group (ICG) explains that with regards to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) tasked with administering and overseeing the elections:
“…the electoral commission is still struggling to get permanent voter cards to more than 15 million registered voters (about 22% of the electorate). It has asked voters to collect them instead, which for many will necessitate an arduous journey.”
The affected areas are those that have been hit hardest by Boko Haram, including Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno states. In these areas, forced displacement could also prevent an additional 1.5 million from participating in the polls. Given that these states are considered bastions of support for Buhari, it could lead to disputes over the election’s results if not adequately addressed.
Lastly, the security challenge posed by Boko Haram adds an additional layer of friction. In recent weeks, the extremist group has stepped up attacks drastically, perhaps most horrifically in Baga where groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented “large-scale destruction” amid fears that up to 2,000 civilians may have been killed. In addition, the group has conducted a number of suicide bombings, attempted to claim crucial territory in the city of Maidaguri, and regionalized its insurgency by making incursions into neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.
The escalation in violence led INEC to determine that, “The risk of deploying young men and women and calling people to exercise their democratic rights in a situation where their security cannot be guaranteed is a most onerous responsibility…Consequently the commission has decided to reschedule the elections thus.” This decision was ostensibly taken to give the military an additional six weeks to tackle the Boko Haram threat.
However, in the past the Nigerian security forces have demonstrated spectacular ineptitude in their efforts to counter Boko Haram, mostly due to pervasive corruption, mutiny, poor equipment, and low morale. More often than not, the army has added to the suffering through aggressive counter-terror tactics and human rights abuses that have further endangered civilian populations. The APC has also made accusations of politicisation, pointing to instances of restrictions on their campaigning activities and an unwillingness to properly investigate attacks against their supporters. Assertions that the delay is of more a political gambit than an outright concern for the safety of Nigerians can only add to these concerns.
Elections as a Trigger for Mass Atrocities
While elections have not been shown to be a direct cause of atrocities, political transitions that occur in times of instability have a tendency to exacerbate underlying tensions and act as a ‘trigger’. This was demonstrated in several states that recently experienced election-related violence in Africa, including Kenya in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2008, Cote d’Ivoire, and to a lesser extent, Guinea, in 2010.
The United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide’s ‘Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes’ explains that “Census, elections, pivotal activities related to those processes, or measures that destabilize them,” should be carefully monitored for the potential to foment atrocity crimes, particularly where a major shift in the political power of a group takes place. However, as noted above, violence is not inevitable if preventive measures are taken.
The 2013 presidential election in Kenya offers a positive example of how state officials, civil society, media representatives, and international donors can work together to ensure free and fair elections, counter hate speech and violent incitement, inform the public through conflict-sensitive reporting, and undertake other peacebuilding activities to prevent the outbreak of widespread violence.
Some of these precautions are being taken in Nigeria. For example, the leading presidential candidates have all signed the Abuja Declaration Accord, publically committing themselves to non-violence and peaceful navigation of the electoral process. Local civil society organizations such as the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, are working around the clock to monitor and report on instances of violence and incitement during the campaigning and on Election Day.
The international community is also stepping up, as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently travelled to Nigeria to speak with the presidential candidates, threatening travel restrictions and other measures should they stoop to the commission of violent acts. The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, has also warned that the court will be monitoring the election and that “No one should doubt my resolve, whenever necessary, to prosecute individuals responsible for the commission of ICC crimes.” Lastly, the African Union has approved a 7,500-strong regional force to assist the Nigerian authorities in their fight against Boko Haram.
But there is more that can be done. For the presidential candidates, Comfort Ero calls on them to tone down their rhetoric, publically denounce incitement from their supporters, and use the courts and other constitutional means to pursue any grievances. For this, CSIS stresses the importance of abiding by the Abuja Declaration Accord, recommending its widespread circulation and enforcement, potentially through a national peace committee.
To the security services, CSIS add that “Nigeria’s security agencies have a responsibility to perform their duties in a strictly impartial manner, to act with restraint, and to strike a balance between providing safe conditions for voting to take place and appearing to “militarize” the process …” ICRtoP member the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect urges Nigeria and regional governments involved in the fight against Boko Haram to finalize and coordinate joint operational plans. Indeed, if the Nigerian military is to uphold its promise to dismantle all Boko Haram bases in northeastern Nigeria in the next six weeks, regional cooperation will likely prove indispensable.
Lastly, the Fund for Peace and Search for Common Ground recently released a joint letter stressing the role of the media, civil society and the private sector in continuing to monitor and report on inflammatory rhetoric, including through social media, delivering messages of peace, leveraging positive relationships with candidates, and establishing a mechanism for mediation in the event of disputed results. Importantly, the critical support of the international community is called upon to reinforce these activities and provide a constant reminder to concerned parties that violence has no place in the electoral process.
Preventing Election Violence a Collective Responsibility
It has been rightly stated that the primary responsibility to prevent election violence lies with presidential candidates themselves. However, other national, regional, and international actors have an equally important role to play. While there are encouraging signs of RtoP preventive action being taken, the delay in elections makes it all the more important that efforts to encourage calm and ensure that credible elections are held in a timely and peaceful manner are redoubled. Should stakeholders waver in their responsibility, the results could be even more catastrophic than in 2011. In this event, as has been pointed out, “Boko Haram will be the only winner…”